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The Honorable Patrick J. Kennedy answers questions about the state of behavioral health

The old AA saying is spot on: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy will headline the 2016 Rosecrance Chicago Benefit, a luncheon which takes place Oct. 19 at the JW Marriott in Chicago. Proceeds from the event will support young adults in recovery at Rosecrance Lakeview.

Kennedy, a pioneer in the field of addiction and mental health parity, will detail his personal and political fight with substance use disorders and mental health. We reached out to the congressman in advance of the event to talk about his courageous work and the impact it’s having across the country.

Why was it important to you to be so open and honest about your personal story?

I wanted to get better. I wanted to enjoy a life of long-term recovery. The old AA saying is spot on: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I certainly hoped, and it has turned out to be true, that if I told my story, it would inspire others to tell their stories. Most American families suffer in silence and feel their situation is unique, when it’s not. Nearly 25 percent of Americans are personally affected by mental illness and addiction each day.

What would you tell people who might be struggling with the decision to tell their stories?

The truth really will set you free. So, admit it to yourself, start being honest with your friends and family, and get into treatment. In February, I celebrated five years of sobriety. I have a wife and four kids and work that I love and makes a real difference. Recovery is possible. Like Rosecrance’s tagline goes: “Life’s Waiting.”

Rosecrance wants to increase access to behavioral health services by opening Rosecrance Lakeview, a new counseling center/recovery home for young adults in Chicago. How do you think the heroin epidemic – and its particular effects on youth and young adults – is changing the/bringing a sense of urgency to discussions about addiction and mental health?

The sheer numbers of people with opioid addiction got the attention of policymakers, the media, the medical profession, insurers, and the public at large. Drug overdoses now outpace car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. In 2014, nearly 50,000 people died this way. I am hopeful about the promise of recovery medicine, which I used to get into recovery from opioid addiction. Like asthma and diabetes, opioid addiction cannot be beaten by sheer will power. It has to be managed and treated like any other disease, including with recovery medicine. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that one recovery drug, buprenorphine, reduced the craving to use an opioid by about 50 percent. Other drugs, like naltrexone, also show promise. We need to break down the barriers, including expanding the number of patients a physician can treat with recovery medicine and requiring insurers to cover treatments with medication, to make sure more people have a chance to succeed in long-term recovery.

Are you encouraged by efforts to reduce stigma surrounding behavioral health?

Absolutely. The more people are open and share their stories, the more families realize that they are not alone, that this is truly a common struggle. Almost everyone knows someone who has recovered from a mental illness or addiction. As we saw with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the more recent LGBT rights movement, people have a hard time holding onto stereotypes when they know someone — a neighbor, a co-worker, a friend of a friend – and like them. My kids will grow up in a world where we increasingly recognize that “everyone has something” and it will be easier for people to step up and seek treatment.

What gives you hope that behavioral health will one day be given the same attention as primary health?

We are making strikes in integrating behavioral health into primary care. More doctors are incorporating depression screening and “a check up from the neck up” in their annual exams, but much more work needs to be done to make it universal. I hold out a lot of hope for greater adoption of the collaborative care model, where common mental health conditions, like anxiety and alcoholism, can be treated by a primary care physician with support from a behavioral health specialist by phone or video. The fastest way to increase the chances of reaching the 26 million Americans who need, but don’t receive behavioral health care each year, is to include behavioral health care into the primary care system.

With the passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, we put ourselves on the road to treating behavioral health the same as physical health. The Parity Law, which I sponsored, was passed with bi-partisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush. It requires insurers to treat diseases of the brain, like opioid addiction or bipolar disorder, the same as illnesses in the body, like cancer or heart disease. Now we need to fully enforce the Parity Act, including educating consumers about their rights under the law. Full implementation of the Parity Law is at the heart of getting everyone the treatment they need and ending discrimination against people with mental health conditions and addictions.

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