The Kennedys Promote Unifying Communities and the Healthcare System to Better Provide for People Fighting Mental Illness and Addiction

Article by Natasha Bell

Patrick J. and Amy Kennedy advocated for change in the current healthcare system regarding mental illness and addiction at the Eisenhower Auditorium last night.

Hosted by the Student Programming Association and moderated by Penn State’s own Dr. Erica Saunders and Dr. Dennis Heitzmann, the couple spoke on founding their organization and their journeys leading up to it.

The Kennedy Forum, which was established in 2013 and inspired by The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, was promised equity in the insurance coverage of mental health and substance abuse disorder care.

Unfortunately, according to Mr. Kennedy, Americans continue to be denied care.

“The only way to truly address our country’s mental health challenges is through our communities,” said Mr. Kennedy. “[We need a] systems approach, which we still haven’t adopted.”

This lack of a unified system of solutions only reinforces stigma and makes it harder for people to reach their potential.

“We somehow have the idea that this is a character flaw and not a chemistry issue,” said Mr. Kennedy, “but it’s innate to all of us to want love, praise, and success.”

Image Credit: Cally Han

Mr. Kennedy, who is a former congressman for Rhode Island, has been in “long term recovery” from addiction and mental illness since 2011. He reflected on the silence he experienced while trying to hide his sickness in his book, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.

“It surrounds these issues. The common struggle is that all mental illnesses have a certain silence that envelops them and affects every other member of the family” said Mr. Kennedy.

Mrs. Kennedy, a Penn State College of Education alum, channeled her knowledge into her position as the education director for The Kennedy Forum, focusing on the development of mental wellness and student social and emotional learning.

While teachers are intuitively changing the way they teach in class to accommodate children who might be suffering neglect, abuse, or other forms of mental illness, a programmatic approach is necessary for more change.

Mrs. Kennedy said, “All I need to be able to do as a teacher is notice that there is something that needs to be done, and then have a system in place where I can turn to support, but if that’s not there, it causes teacher burnout.”

Image Credit: Cally Han

Together, the couple hopes to encourage community and society-wide efforts towards mental wellness, which will lead to mental health parity.

Mr. Kennedy, “We don’t have to do more anti-stigma campaigns, we need to normalize the treatment of mental illness in healthcare.”

According to the Kennedys, without a collaborative effort, mental wellness will depend solely on where a person comes from.

“No more separate but unequal,” said Mr. Kennedy, “justice shouldn’t depend on geography.”

Feature Image: Cally Han

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