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Congressman Patrick Kennedy on the Importance of Parity

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New Directions for Women would like to share an interview by Behavioral Health Today with Congressman Patrick Kennedy on his involvement with the behavioral health industry. In this interview he discusses his involvement with Mental Health Parity and the Addiction Equality Act. He also discusses the importance of the treatment of addiction before it becomes a crisis within one’s lifetime. Kennedy advocates that addiction treatment be treated as equal as other health issues. We hope that you will take the time to listen to this compelling interview. Below is a transcript of the interview for you to follow:

Interviewer: Hi, we’re here with Mr. Patrick Kennedy. Mr. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us today.

Patrick Kennedy: It’s great to be with you, Loquecia.

Interviewer: So you have a very rich family legacy here. Just tell us about your involvement in the behavioral health industry like what motivated you to get involved in behavioral health?

Patrick Kennedy: Well, I believe it’s a modern day human rights issues, a civil rights issue because it is a cause of treating people with equality and I was the sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act which said that our medical system ought to treat illnesses of the brain just like we would treat any other organ in the body. It sounds so obvious but unfortunately because of the pervasive discrimination, which was founded upon fear and ignorance, we really have persistent prejudice against people who have brain illnesses who are suffering in light of the fact that the country doesn’t understand that these are illnesses, physical illnesses even though they manifest themselves in behavior because we assume behavior is always just voluntary.

But if someone is ensnared in the grip of these illnesses, they often don’t have the power of choice and we need to understand that. We need to understand that these are issues of chemistry, not character, that they’re really issues of medicine, not morality. And if we can understand that then we’ll be quicker to treat these issues like we would any other physical health issue which means that we’ll treat these conditions with the urgency that any other physical health issue would be dealt with. And so in healthcare, we reimburse for all kinds of primary care for diabetes because we don’t wait till someone has to have their legs amputated or go blind from diabetes.

But with mental illness and addiction we wait until it’s a crisis. [Let’s take] cancer – if we told people that they had to go back and wait till it was stage 4 cancer before we treat them, we wouldn’t tolerate that. But we routinely reimburse for medical care for mental illnesses the same way as we would like that, waiting till it’s stage 4, waiting until it’s a crisis. And what we often do is lock people up because our criminal justice system has become the substitute for a strong mental health system. And so what I’m an advocate for is equality, making sure that we treat the brain and all of the illnesses of the brain the same as any other physical health issue.

Interviewer: So October next month is going to be 50 years since President JFK signed the Community Mental Health Act.

Patrick Kennedy: That’s right.

Interviewer: And you’ve also formed the Kennedy Forum on Community Health. Can you tell us how you hope that helps Americans?

Patrick Kennedy: Well one of the ways that we’re going to be more successful as an advocacy is if we organize like any other group would organize and be more united in our common voice. So unfortunately we’ve kind of fallen down where we define ourselves in a very silo turf battle way. You have the SMI community, severely mentally ill, you have the substance use disorder community, and you have the intellectual developmental disability community. We’re all in our different silos as opposed to thinking about how all of what we need is the same.

We need supportive living services, supportive employment, supportive housing and that those things will help reduce medical costs and disability. And so we have an opportunity now with healthcare reform to get those new things that are often considered non-medical, paid for, but we need to be ready to make this case, make it forcefully and if we’re doing it together we’ll be much more effective than if we’re trying to do it separately.

Interviewer: Medivance Billing Service has formed the “Erase the Stigma Now” campaign and you are mentioning there is a stigma attached to behavioral health and substance abuse issues. How can we erase the stigma?

Patrick Kennedy: Well if we looked at mental healthcare and substance use disorder treatment and supportive recovery in the same way we would any other physical health issue, like when you went to the doctor, in addition to getting your cholesterol checked and your blood pressure checked, you get a checkup from the neck up. I mean it’s shocking that in our healthcare system pediatricians don’t routinely really investigate the emotional and social well-being of children, how important that is for the child’s health or do not ask if you’re in women’s health whether your patients have been subject to sexual trauma or violence which is too tragically an often occurring situation. We don’t ask senior citizens what their depression is like.

And the bottom line is part of whole health means making sure that someone’s mental health and well-being is taken care of. So we need to make this routine. And I think if we made it routine then it wouldn’t be so stigmatized. The reason it’s stigmatized is [because] it’s looked upon as being separate. As we learned in the Civil Rights movement, separate but equal is unequal. We need to make this all about healthcare. Frankly we’ve got to lose the mental health tag because it conveys something separate.

Treating your brain health is treating your whole person and it has great success in helping you deal with all the other illnesses that you might also have. So it’s all about changing mindset and changing attitudes and I really appreciate your – the “Erase the Stigma” campaign that is trying to encourage a breakdown of these really artificial barriers to care for people just because their illness is in the brain as opposed to another organ in their body.

Interviewer: Is there anything else that you’d like to add about behavioral health and like your goals for the future?

Patrick Kennedy: This is just a march towards progress. We’ve got to keep working and if we all try to do our part, together we’ll make a difference.

Interviewer: Thank you so much.

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