Sharing our stories: Bringing mental illness and addiction out of the shadows
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Patrick Kennedy speak about his personal struggles with mental illness and drug addiction. He talked openly about the trauma he experienced growing up, as his family reeled from one tragedy after another, including the violent deaths of his uncles, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.
Bullet proof vests were a normal part of childhood, he said, realizing year later that his parents, including his dad the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, lived with constant fear, grief and guilt. Today, we’d label these experiences as “adverse childhood events.” But back then, his family, like many of our families, didn’t discuss emotional pain and suffering. Instead, we swept it under the rug and found other ways to cope.
Patrick Kennedy said he dealt with his issues by turning to substance abuse. His addiction to prescription medications and other drugs came to light in a very public fashion, when he crashed his car while driving under the influence. It was a wake-up call that got him to seek the help he needed and turn his life around. He has been sober ever since and today is an outspoken advocate for mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
Like him, millions of Americans struggle with addiction and mental illness. His story reinforces the importance of supporting one another in speaking out and sharing our experiences, so that we can destigmatize mental illness and shine a light on the epidemic that is sweeping our nation.
The statistics are staggering. Opioid addiction is up nearly 500 percent over the last seven years. An average of 23 veterans commit suicide every day, and 39 percent of all disease burden is related to some form of mental illness. If this were Ebola, the U.S. would have declared a national emergency by now. It’s time to act with all matter of urgency.
Our commitment to mental health
As I listened to Patrick Kennedy speak, I felt even more resolute about the work Providence St. Joseph Health is doing to address the mental health crisis. As an organization, we have made a commitment to:
- Eliminate the stigma of mental illness and ease access to care;
- Build resilience in children, teens, families and seniors;
- Reduce suffering from depression, anxiety and social isolation;
- Curtail substance abuse;
- Create hope for people with serious and persistent mental illness; and
- Grow healthy equitable communities that support human flourishing.
We are working to implement and share best practices across our seven-state health care system. We are partnering with organizations like the National Association of Mental Illness and the National Council on Behavioral Health to support individuals and families in our communities struggling with mental illness and addiction. In addition, we have committed $100 million to establish the Well Being Trust, a foundation focused on improving the mental, social and spiritual health of our communities.
The foundation announced its first slate of grants recently, which include:
- A collaboration with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement to address mental health care and substance misuse in emergency departments
- A partnership with the Trust for America’s Health to develop policy recommendation a variety of mental health issues, but especially substance misuse and suicide
- A grant to the California Mental Health and Wellness Initiative to initially focus on better integrating behavioral health services from clinic to community.
These are meaningful initiatives that could dramatically affect the mental health and well-being of our country. But success starts with being able to talk openly and honestly about mental health and addiction issues.
As a health system, we have an opportunity to encourage and empower individuals to speak out about this important topic. I invite other health systems and organizations from every sector of society to join us in this effort to inspire hope, healing, wellness and inclusion for everyone. I applaud Patrick Kennedy for opening up and being willing to be vulnerable about his own struggles. We can all learn from his example.