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Patrick Kennedy: Mental Health Care as a Civil Rights Issue

May 14, 2013

Congressman Patrick Kennedy gave a rousing talk this morning for Speak Up for Kids about equal treatment for people with mental illness as nothing short of a civil rights issue.

He draws his passion and his insight, in part, from his own experience battling mental illness. He knows first hand how hard it is for families to get good diagnosis and treatment, and how damaging it is when psychiatric illness is not taken as seriously as physical illnesses. Brain illness deserves parity, he argues, not only under the law, in insurance coverage, but in research dollars devoted to unlocking new treatments.

Asked about how and when he was diagnosed as bipolar, he said this: “The honest truth is that it’s taken me a lifetime to get adequate diagnosis.”

Rep. Kennedy described being “bounced around the system”—a phrase we hear a lot from parents. In his case it was not because he lacked resources or insurance coverage, or family members fighting for him—he was very fortunate in those things, he acknowledged—but because when the diagnosis isn’t correct, the treatment won’t work. “When you’re still trying to put your finger on the diagnosis, people are treated for various illnesses that may not be the specific illness they suffer from.” There’s a lot of ineffective treatment of brain illness, he added, because of misdiagnosis.

“The crucial thing we need to do is improve the diagnosis,” he said. “And that only happens when we improve the science.” Rep. Kennedy advocates a national brain research initiative that will allow scientists to uncover the mechanisms that underlie mental illness instead of focusing on specific disorders like autism or ADHD.

Not making brain research a national priority, he argues, is tantamount to telling people with mental illness they have to wait for equality.

He reminds us of President Kennedy’s 1963 speech challenging all Americans to understand the urgency of those denied their civil rights on the basis of race: “Who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

Similarly, Rep. Kennedy says, “If you have a loved one with autism, a mood disorder, with Alzheimer, how long would you tolerate us taking the slow road to better cures and better treatments?”

Tagged with: Mental Health, Public Policy
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller is the editorial director of the Child Mind Institute. In that role she directs development of resources on … Read Bio