Patrick Kennedy is passionate about mental health. Driven by his own struggles to overcome anxiety and depression, he has dedicated his life — as a U.S. Congressman and as a private citizen — to changing the way we understand and treat people struggling with mental health and learning disorders. In this interview, the former Congressman shares his own struggles and discusses the urgent need to advance the science of the developing brain.

Q&A

Why is brain science so important for us to focus on?

Patrick: We all have mental health issues because we all have brains. And yet brain science and mental health has been a stepchild of the health care system. The Child Mind Institute is reestablishing the central focus of treating the whole person. You cannot treat these issues without treating brain illnesses. And why we could ever think that we could is hard to understand but it is still unfortunately part of the reality that we have to deal with today.

Why do you think there is such a resistance to this especially with regard to children?

Patrick: I am a big champion of the Child Mind Institute because I believe it is putting together science that is accelerating better treatments for all of our loved ones. And doing it for kids is also doing it for their parents and their grandparents because the understanding of these illnesses all point to early intervention and early treatment and diagnosis. The collaboration that they have developed between science and clinical research to advance the overall knowledge of better treatments and diagnoses is absolutely essential if we care about mental health not only for our loved ones but for the broader public health of our nation.

“My uncle started the moon shot 50 years ago — it went to outer space. We need the race to inner space. This is the most important thing, not only to each of us as individuals but to our families.”

Why is this important for the broader public?

Patrick: We’re in a golden age of neuroscience. My uncle started the moon shot 50 years ago — it went to outer space. We need the race to inner space. This is the most important thing, not only to each of us as individuals, but to our families. All of us have loved ones, children especially, who we want to help, and the Child Mind Institute is about accelerating the knowledge whereby treatments and diagnoses will change people’s lives. The Child Mind Institute is developing the science that is helping to tear away the misconceptions of brain illnesses and get to the fact that they are treatable. And if they are treatable, why wouldn’t we want treatment available to every single person in this country?

Can you talk about the systemic costs to society for neglecting these issues?

Patrick: The best deficit reduction plan that hasn’t been considered is curing all brain illnesses. When you think about the lost productivity — let alone the lost school days, active days of work — the implications on our society at large of untreated mental illness… it’s astonishing. The costs to society are first and foremost personal because it involves a loved one or a family member. But ultimately the cost to society, our economy and our health care system is unsustainable. Both for our own personal reasons as well as for the future of our economy we need to address these issues and failure is not an option. Delay is not an option.

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Why is this moment so important?

Patrick: We’re in the best place ever to make discoveries because of all of this foundational research. The key now are the tools and the tools of mass computing. Using the data collection processes that super computers are giving us gives us an unparalleled opportunity to advance the understanding of the brain and all illnesses of the brain. We can’t miss this opportunity. We must seize it.

To change gears a little, what was your childhood like and when did mental health come into the picture?

Patrick: Whenever I was with my family, it was always the highlight. School and family were also intertwined because I went to school with so many of my family members. It was shortly after my parents got divorced when I was 13 that I was taken to see my first psychotherapist. And it was thought that because of the trauma of my parent’s separation and the impact it had on me that it was important that I start psychotherapy. I think my parents were just concerned about my emotional growth and worried about what this would do.

“The Child Mind Institute is giving us a path by which we can have greater confidence and hope not only for our kids but for our whole society at large.”

What was the experience like?

Patrick: I was less apprehensive about seeing a therapist when I was 13 than when I was in my 20’s because as a kid the excuse was, well, your parents are getting divorced. Later on when I went to a therapist as a young adult in my 20’s, I did feel self-conscious. I did feel the stigma of mental health. I was painfully aware when I went to the pharmacy when I had to pick up medication and the look of whoever was at the cash register when they gave me my meds. I was feeling more stigmatized as I grew older ’cause I kind of felt like I should have gotten a handle on this. I shouldn’t need it anymore. And I think the big conundrum in these illnesses is that if you have a chronic illness like I have — I’ve been diagnosed with severe depression, bipolar disorder — that you need constant treatment, which is the key to keeping it at bay. But the general notion is that if you have to keep going back for care you’re somehow failing as opposed to looking at it as no, no, you are winning because you’re maintaining your recovery. But of course we don’t have that mindset in our country. We think of illness as purely an acute care setting and you go in and get taken care of and you leave. I think we need a general change of attitude and outlook on mental illnesses. And when we do that mental health is going to be a crucial component thankfully because the law I had a part in authoring we’re now required to offer mental health in every health insurance plan in this country.

“The best deficit reduction plan that hasn’t been considered is curing all brain illnesses. When you think about the lost productivity — let alone the lost school days, active days of work — the implications on our society at large of untreated mental illness… it’s astonishing.”

What would you suggest to a parent who may have a child with behavioral problem or some kind of anxiety or moodiness?

Patrick: The exciting time that we are living in now means that we understand more about how to treat these illnesses and these behaviors as medical issues, as treatable issues. And they are no longer a matter of doubt in terms of what to do. It’s more a question of how do we take what we do know to scale. And you wouldn’t expect any differently for any other area of health care if it works then make sure it works for everybody. We know already great therapies that have a demonstrable impact on reducing someone’s suffering but that’s not widely available. I like what the Child Mind Institute has done because it has helped accelerate not only the science and research but also the translation of that science into treatments that can be brought to scale even for kids that aren’t in their network.