Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy talks mental illness, addiction at College of Charleston

The Post Courier

By: Lauren Sausser

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, now a vocal advocate for mental health, said Wednesday in Charleston that disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein clearly suffers from a “compulsion” and should have been treated years earlier.

“How many people could have said to him a long time ago, ‘You’ve got a real illness here. You’ve got to get help.’? He had no insight,” said Kennedy, the former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island and son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.

That lack of insight is common among those who suffer from addiction and mental illness, said Kennedy, who spoke at the College of Charleston on Wednesday.

The former politician is in long-term recovery himself for alcoholism and drug abuse. In 2006, as a sitting member of Congress, he crashed his car into a police barricade near the U.S. Capitol and nearly hit an officer. He left Congress in 2011 and chose not to seek re-election.

“I’m really lucky to be alive today. I’m lucky not to be in jail,” he said. “Honestly, inches could have made the difference between me standing in front of you today and being incarcerated for the rest of my life.”

Now, Kennedy dedicates his time to raising awareness about mental health. He co-chairs a political action committee called ParityPAC, which was set up to “support federal candidates who are taking a leadership role in advancing mental health equity, regardless of party affiliation,” according to the group’s website.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 44 million Americans suffer from mental illness and fewer than half receive treatment. About 20 million Americans suffer from a substance abuse disorder, and many patients in these two groups overlap.

Sex addiction, which Kennedy alluded to in his remarks about Weinstein, isn’t listed as an illness in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but many mental health experts consider it a legitimate disease.

Weinstein has been recently accused of sexual assault and harassment by dozens of women. He was fired this weekend from the film company he co-founded and indicated in a statement to The New York Times that he intends to conquer his “demons.”

“After everybody knew in that town, (Weinstein) was someone who was really ill,” Kennedy said. “It’s that kind of silence — and he has culpability for sure, as we all do — but he clearly had a compulsion that was something that he couldn’t manage.”

Kennedy underscored early intervention and treatment is crucial for patients with mental illness, but it is often not available to them.

“One of the reasons for the horrendous statistics in our country of suicide and overdose is because too many people wait and they don’t get help until it’s in a critical stage in their illness,” he said. “With cancer, you would never screen someone, Stage 1 cancer, and say, ‘Wait until it’s Stage 4 and then come back and maybe we’ll treat you. Maybe we’ll treat you.’ But that’s exactly what our current health system, insurance system does with mental illnesses and addiction.”

College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell welcomed Kennedy to campus Wednesday. He said students on college campuses across the country clearly struggle with mental illness and addiction because the demand for treatment services far outpaces enrollment growth.

And Kennedy’s story offers them a powerful message, McConnell said.

“It’s an important message, really, for every college campus,” McConnell said. “Anytime you can tell a story of a real experience, that communicates volumes over a lecture.”

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“We stand on the doorstep to make momentous progress in advancing the cause of this new civil rights struggle started by the work of President Kennedy over 50 years ago.”
— Patrick J. Kennedy