Four hours before Republican presidential candidates faced off for the second GOP debate in California last Wednesday, a Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, stood before a small gathering at the Chicago Community Trust headquarters and talked about something people don't like to talk about: mental illness.
He was introduced by Peter O'Brien, owner of O'Brien's Restaurant on Wells, who began by remembering his son, Peter Jr., who struggled for years before dying at age 32.
"Peter just couldn't accept that he had a mental illness because of the stigma and shame of mental illness," O'Brien said, explaining why he had started Kennedy Forum Illinois, the local branch of Kennedy's national organization that is trying to reduce the disgrace associated with mental illness and addiction.
"A lot of Americans run away from it because they don't want to deal with the pain," said Kennedy, who has been public about his own battles with bipolar disorder, alcoholism and drug addiction, though brushing aside O'Brien's suggestion he had done so out of courage. "I got in a car accident that put me on the front page of every newspaper in American in 2006, and at that point I had no choice but finally acknowledge that I had a problem."
Kennedy went from being an addict in denial to becoming the sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which requires insurance companies cover the treatment of mental illnesses to the same degree as physical ones and not impose different, inevitably lesser standards of care. He thought he would be one of hundreds of co-sponsors, but found his colleagues reluctant to attach their names to the law.
"They worried people would say, 'You're sponsoring this bill,'" Kennedy said, extending an accusing finger, "Do you have a mental illness?"
Treatment for mental illness or addiction still can be difficult to find or pay for, and most addicts never get help.
"That's the law of the land but unfortunately no one knows about it, and the insurance industry is counting on you not knowing about it," he said.
I sure didn't. Though, being a recovering alcoholic myself, I am keenly aware of the stigma, sadly familiar that there is a swath of people convinced that the whole thing is a sham cooked up to cover bad behavior, which I only wish were true. But it isn't. Addiction is a kind of mental illness, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that can be managed but never cured. Treatment can be life-saving.
Kennedy's talk came back to me later that day, during the third hour of the Republican debate. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, trying to project a tough guy image to counter his Squiggy hairdo, promised that as president he would go charging into Colorado and use federal law to bust the pot industry. Rand Paul, who seems to have embraced rational thought as his latest campaign strategy, pointed out Christie's hypocrisy: the GOP is all for state's rights when it comes to putting dinosaurs alongside humans in Alabama biology textbooks, but when whiffing pot from the Rocky Mountain State, Christie grabs the big stick of federal power.
At which point former Hewlett-Packard boss Carly Fiorina invoked her experience.
“My husband, Frank, and I buried a child to drug addiction," she said of her 35-year-old step-daughter who died in 2009. "We must invest more in the treatment of drugs. ... Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people."
When Patrick Kennedy, the youngest son of Ted Kennedy, and Carly Fiorina start saying the same thing, that's significant. Betty Ford revealing her alcoholism was an earthquake because first ladies didn't suffer from that kind of thing or, at least didn't admit it. That Fiorina's comment was almost lost in the cacophony is progress of a sort. The stigma is lessening.
Not that it will crumble on its own. Kennedy quoted Frederick Douglass:
"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
"We're citizens as well, in a country facing a growing epidemic of addiction," Kennedy said, calling on people to lobby their officials and put pressure on providers, and get involved. Chicago has a Recovery Walk in Garfield Park Sept. 26, and a national The Day the Silence Ends march in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4.
"We have no political power. Stigma eviscerates our political power," Kennedy said. "Twenty-three million Americans are in long-term recovery, but we're not organized; we're anonymous people, meeting in church basements. This is 2015, and we must talk about the most important issue for public health in our country."