Patrick Kennedy thinks Spokane is doing a lot right when it comes to mental health care. But there’s still a long way to go.
“The Greater Spokane area, Montana, Eastern Washington suicide rate is dramatically higher than even the national rate,” he said. “That is impacting our young people so much so that it’s, along with the overdose crisis, resulting in a lower lifetime expectancy for all Americans.”
Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2011, will speak Wednesday at a community conversation on mental health sponsored by Providence Health Care and Eastern Washington University. He is a the son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy.
During his time in Congress and since, Kennedy has been an advocate for mental health parity and improving access to care. While in Congress, he introduced the bill that became the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.
He’s worked with Providence and its foundation, Well Being Trust, on a national level and said the hospital group was “founded upon the principles of whole care and compassionate care,” including mental health care.
Though federal law requires insurers to provide equal access to mental and physical health services, he said those laws are routinely violated.
“What we have found is that there is a continued discrimination by insurance companies in every one of the 50 states,” Kennedy said. “It’s shocking that, as a nation, we let our insurance companies continue to discriminate against patients that are seeking these services in a way that we would never abide if it were chronic diabetes or chronic cardiovascular disease.”
Kennedy’s own experience from having bipolar disorder and battling drug and alcohol addiction has informed his work.
He said he was lucky to be able to access quality treatment while in Congress but still struggled with stigma. Most people have to contend with stigma while also worrying about accessing care in the first place.
“Secrecy kills, and that’s the natural inclination from anyone who suffers from one of these illnesses: to try to keep it secret,” Kennedy said.
He left Congress to focus on getting sober and now works to improve behavioral health care, including addiction treatment, through the Kennedy Forum, a think tank he founded in 2013.
Though conversations about access to mental health care have been a consistent theme within the health care industry for the past few years, Kennedy said advocacy work is still in its infancy.
“We’re still at the formative stages in our nation of building a modern-day mental health advocacy movement,” he said.
Following his keynote, the community conversation will have a panel discussion including Freeman School District Superintendent Randy Russell, Frontier Behavior Health chief executive Jeff Thomas and Linda Thompson, the executive director of the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council.