Q&A on Mental Health with Patrick J. Kennedy
Patrick J. Kennedy spent 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Rhode Island’s First Congressional District. In 2013, he founded The Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit that unites advocates, business leaders, and government agencies in support of evidence-based practices, policies, and programming in mental health and addiction. In 2015, Kennedy co-authored the New York Times Bestseller, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction, which details a bold plan for the future of mental health care in America. In 2017, he was appointed to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Kennedy is also the co-founder of One Mind, an organization that pushes for greater global investment in brain research, and co-chair of Mental Health for US, a nonpartisan initiative created to elevate mental health and addiction in policy conversations during the 2020 election cycle.
Can you give a brief overview of the things you’ve done as a member of Congress and in other organizations to advocate for access to mental care?
I was the primary sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (Federal Parity Law). The Act said that mental health and addiction has be treated the same as medical and surgical care with insurance providers, pharmacies and ERs across a spectrum of primary, secondary and tertiary levels of care. It was very thorough and clear that we should have the same network adequacy for psychiatrists, psychologists, peer support specialists and medications that we have for oncology, cardiovascular and other diseases. I started an organization called The Kennedy Forum and for the last 10 years have been working to really track and enforce the Parity Law. We started the Don’t Deny Me Campaign to educate consumers and providers about patient rights under the Federal Parity Law and connect them to essential appeals guidance and resources.
What needs to be done to expand access to mental health care across the U.S.?
We need to change the status quo – from not only reimbursing adequately and filling the pipeline with new providers but addressing the social determinants that impact mental health and addiction. This includes criminal justice reform, reforming our education system to prioritize social-emotional learning, and so much more. We have the plan, what we are missing is the political will to implement it.
Why do you feel that access to mental health care is so important?
So many people are suffering. If this were cancer or diabetes, we’d be outraged. We tolerate it because there is still a stigma around it, as if people choose to live with addiction or mental illness. No one chooses that. We must come out the shadows and really create a system that meets the needs of everyone. Mental health and addiction are the biggest public health crises of our time.
What can Texas hospitals do to ensure that mental health care is treated the same as physical health care?
Hospitals must really engage in advocacy campaigns with likeminded organizations to address all the compounding factors that create a problem for them in their emergency rooms. There is a lack of access to care on the outside of the hospital walls. They must work to influence lawmakers, insurers and businesses.