ATLANTA - Patrick Kennedy wants to get people talking about the things we don’t talk about.
"The big enemy here is silence,” Kennedy says. “At every level, the silence surrounding these issues is what kills us. Literally and figuratively."
Speaking at Morehouse School of Medicine, the youngest son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, says he struggled for years with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and addiction. In his new book, “A Common Struggle,” Kennedy says his family, like a lot of families, battled substance abuse but looked the other way.
"We don't want to talk about it, say anything, confront anybody. And that's true in our own families and it's true in the medical system,” says Kennedy. “It's shocking that we don't have addiction treatment, or early screening for folks, in the medical system. Like, we have to wait until they're at death's door before we kick in. If it were cancer or diabetes, you'd intervene early on because you'd know what to look for."
Kennedy, a Congressman from Rhode Island for 16 years, says he led a double-life until it all came crashing down in 2006. Arrested for DUI after a crash on Capitol Hill, Kennedy pled guilty, then announced he was going to rehab.
"When I kind of had that gift of desperation, and knew that I couldn't continue on that track that I was on, it was freeing for me,” Kennedy says. “But, I also have to say that's not enough."
He says patients with brain disorders need ongoing support.
“These are chronic illnesses,” Kennedy says. “That's what people lose sight of. They think, 'Oh, you went to rehab. You're all set. Okay, now go on and live your life.' We want the same for the brain as you get for the rest of the body, and we want it integrated into the physical health system. We don't want mental health to be down the hall."
Kennedy says Morehouse School of Medicine has created a national model of integrated care, working through Grady Health System’s community health centers across metro Atlanta.
The idea, he says, is that when someone comes to the doctor, for whatever reason, “That they'd also get a checkup from the neck up. That they'd get screened for depression and anxiety and addiction."
At the end of February, Patrick Kennedy will celebrate 5 years in recovery. It's a work in process, he says. He takes daily medication for his mood disorder, attends regular 12-step programs, and leans on his wife Amy and family for support.
"I get on my knees every morning and thank God I've got another day,” Kennedy says.
Because, now a father of 4 young children, Kennedy says he never realized life could be this good.
“I was someone who despaired because of the grip of addiction in my life,” he says. “Never having thought that I could actually come out the other side.”