Fifty years ago this month, my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, signed the Community Mental Health Act, long-considered the law that laid the foundation for modern-day mental health care. In the decades since the landmark signing of that legislation, the mental health community has made great strides. But we have much more to do to honor President Kennedy’s legacy, achieve equality, and improve care for those suffering from mental illness, intellectual disabilities and addictions.
We have a generation of service members returning home from war, including many with brain injuries. Our communities, too often, are shattered by gun violence. We must address and reverse the growing suicide epidemic in this country — which claims more than 38,000 American lives annually, and as many as 22 veterans each day. With health exchanges taking root nationwide, we must also ensure that those struggling with mental illness and addictions receive equal treatment to those with physical ailments. We can’t have 50 rules in 50 states governing how we treat these diseases.
Put simply, this is a time of tremendous opportunity for our nation to set the course for future breakthroughs in care and in public policy. Together, we must seize this moment if we are going to finally end the stigma associated with mental illness and help millions of our fellow citizens lead better, healthier lives.
In 1963, President Kennedy said, “We cannot afford to postpone any longer a reversal in our approach to mental affliction. For too long the shabby treatment of the many millions … needing help has been justified on grounds of inadequate funds, further studies and future promises. We can procrastinate no more.”
While we have made significant progress, many Americans with mental illnesses and intellectual or developmental disabilities still face discriminatory policies that postpone or block access to effective treatments.
President Kennedy called for a “bold new approach.” That’s why I am launching The Kennedy Forum to unite the mental health community in common purpose. Our first events take place Oct. 23 here in Boston with a gala event at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum followed by a full day conference featuring some of the brightest minds in the country at the Westin Copley Place. We begin this effort with partners such as the One Mind Campaign, the International Mental Health Research Organization, and sponsors spanning the mental health community.
Improving mental health, and helping those with intellectual disabilities and addictions, has united my family. After all, mental illness can affect your family as it has mine. My aunt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, motivated in part by her sister Rosemary’s own battle with intellectual disability, founded the Special Olympics. For my father, Senator Ted Kennedy, the fight for expanding health care was the cause of his life. In Congress and even through my own struggles, I too have fought to give a voice to those who deserve equal treatment under our health care system. I co-authored the Mental Health Parity & Addiction Equity Act along with my father, giving tens of millions of Americans who were previously denied care access to essential mental health treatment by removing arbitrary distinctions between the brain and the body. Unfortunately, too many are still waiting for some pieces of this law to be implemented.
The Kennedy Forum will continue our family’s proud tradition. In Boston and through community events around the country, we will delve into topics including advances in mental health research and treatment, community approaches, employment for individuals with mental and developmental disabilities, and improvements in mental health treatment from the Affordable Care Act and Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.
President Kennedy’s inspiring words are still with us today, and sadly so are many of the problems faced by those with mental illness. In 1963, he described the care of the mentally ill as “a problem unpleasant to mention, easy to postpone, and despairing of solution.” He sought to dismantle the “social quarantine” we know as the stigma of mental illness.
At The Kennedy Forum, we will honor President Kennedy, the progress our nation has made, and call upon today’s leaders to seize the opportunity to create 21st century policies and provide better care for millions.
Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of The Kennedy Forum, is a former member of Congress representing Rhode Island.