Former U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy (RI-DEM) is probably best known and appreciated professionally for what he’s done for mental health parity—as he says, making “the scope of mental health coverage the same as all the rest of physical health care coverage.”
And he hasn’t stopped there. Since leaving the House of Representatives in 2011, he founded the Kennedy Forum, an organization that supports various mental health initiatives, and co-founded One Mind for Research, which studies brain disorders. One common thread among his different pursuits is his desire to eliminate mental health stigma.
Patrick Kennedy is probably at least as well known both for being the son of Joan and Ted Kennedy and for having well-publicized though not necessarily publicly understood personal problems.
Believing in the 12-step program maxim “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” Kennedy has come out in recent years about the specific nature of his long-term battles with substance abuse and mental health issues. He has also finally, after repeated efforts throughout his lifetime, made his sobriety stick—four-plus years worth, he says.
In his new book A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction, co-authored with journalist Stephen Fried, Patrick Kennedy expands not only on his own story but also on that of his famous family—thereby breaking what he calls “the Kennedy code of silence.”
A code, by the way, that extends to psychotherapy, in case the “psychiatrist” breaks confidentiality.
This past Sunday, the evening before the book’s publication, Kennedy was interviewed by 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl. He expressed his awareness that many of his family members will not be happy with his revelations and/or perspectives.
“It’s a conspiracy of silence,” he notes, “not only for the person who is suffering, but for everyone else who’s forced to interact with that person. That’s why they call this a family disease.”
Although he writes mainly about his own issues, Patrick Kennedy also addresses certain family secrets—examples include the extent of the alcohol problems of both parents, the probable PTSD of his father (related to the tragic assassinations of brothers JFK and RFK), and the effects of no one discussing or processing these incidents as well as others, e.g., Chappaquiddick.
Stahl: “You actually say that because nobody talked about these things in the family, you were all kind of like zombies…”
Kennedy: “Well, we were living in a limbo land where all of this chaos, this emotional turmoil, was happening. And we were expected just to live through it.”
Somehow he has lived through it, and now he’s also managed to turn himself around. Currently he does what he can to maintain his sobriety, which includes daily 12-step meetings, and to treat his bipolar disorder, which includes taking appropriate medication.
So far, notably, it seems that news about A Common Struggle has focused more on the family’s negative reactions to it and less on reporting or reviewing its actual contents. The Boston Globe, however, calls the book “strikingly raw and emotional,” while other readers have applauded this Kennedy’s courage and openness.