Kennedy got candid about the ups and downs of his journey to sobriety in a recent commencement speech.
Former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy had to learn about the stigma surrounding substance use disorder the hard way.
His father and former U.S. Senator, the late Ted Kennedy, was compassionate “when it came to my asthma or my brother’s bone cancer,” Kennedy said at the University of Rhode Island commencement last Sunday (May 19). But “when it came to my addictions,” his father said, “Patrick just needs a swift kick in the ass.”
Kennedy gave his commencement speech to a crowd of 15,000 on Sunday. The congressman-turned-mental health advocate said that drug overdose and suicide in the U.S. is “a public health crisis.”
As a U.S. representative, Kennedy was the lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which required insurance to cover treatment for “illnesses of the brain, like depression and addiction, the same as diseases of the body, like cancer and heart disease,” as he explained to The Fix in a 2016 interview.
“Mental health conditions are chronic diseases, for the most part,” said Kennedy in the same interview. “You wouldn’t feel shame in seeking treatment for diabetes or cancer. So you shouldn’t feel ashamed for seeking treatment for depression, anxiety or anything else.”
Kennedy added, “And just like those other diseases, people living with a mental health condition or substance use disorder can manage their disease and live full, happy, meaningful lives—I’m living proof of that.”
After leaving Congress, Kennedy furthered his mental health advocacy by founding The Kennedy Forum in 2013, an organization with the goal of revolutionizing mental health care in the U.S., and One Mind, an organization to improve and accelerate brain research.
When he was younger, Kennedy was haunted by his father’s perception of addiction. “I spent many years lost in a fog of shame,” he said at URI. “Addiction was unimpressed that I came from a famous family.”
On May 6, 2006, Kennedy woke up at three o’clock in the morning “thinking I was late for a vote.” That’s when he famously crashed his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill. He admitted that he had been “disoriented” from medication he was taking.
“That’s when I found my highest calling,” he said. We’d later find out that Kennedy was abusing OxyContin, which he was prescribed for back pain.
Since he revealed his truth, he said other senators and representatives, both Democrat and Republican, would confide in him about their own struggles.
Kennedy found help through medication-assisted treatment. And through his work, and through speaking up about his own journey, he’s hoping to encourage more people to speak up as well.
“The more people learn that someone at their church is in recovery for opioid addiction or another mom at day care takes medication to control her OCD, the more we will realize that ‘everyone has something.’ We have to break down the ‘othering’ that has gone on too long with brain diseases,” he told The Fix.