Over and over again, speakers young and old at the Kennedy Forum emphasized the importance of speaking up to erase the stigma of mental illness and addiction.
But just as important, they said, is taking the time to speak kindly and express concern when someone dares to share struggles that might be related to mental health or substance abuse.
Held in Chicago on Dec. 6, the Kennedy Forum this year focused on “Young Minds” and how the communities they live in can help them build resilience and well-being for the next generation. Statistics show the importance of starting early: the onset of half of all mental illnesses occurs before age 14. That rises to 75 percent by the age of 24.
While the speakers represented a wide range of ages and backgrounds, their stories had a common theme. When they were suffering and someone spoke kindly, it made it possible to get help, perhaps immediately or perhaps at a later time.
When someone spoke unkindly, it could drive them back into hiding.
A Sampling of Stories
Here’s a sampling of the stories speakers shared at the event.
When Elizabeth Vargas had her first panic attack at age 6, an exasperated caregiver asked, “What’s the matter with you?” At the time, Vargas was struggling with the absence of her father, who was serving in the military in Vietnam, and her mother’s departure for the hospital to give birth to a younger sister. Years later, when Vargas experienced a panic attack on the air as a television anchor, a colleague harshly echoed the same words: “What’s the matter with you?” Vargas struggled with panic attacks during her career, which included co-anchoring ABC’s 20/20 program. Her struggles with anxiety fueled her alcoholism. Her marriage ended and she nearly lost her children, home and career before she got help. She speaks out to help others recognize issues in their lives because “Every one of us has a person in our lives struggling with mental illness and addiction.”
Joseph Green grew up in a military family with a tradition of never talking about troubles.Being depressed was seen as being “lazy,” while being anxious was seen as “cowardly.” Told to “get over it,” family members turned to drinking. Today, Green sees the same pattern occur in his work in Washington, D.C., as the youth program director of Split This Rock, which uses poetry as an agent for change. “Create opportunities and spaces for young people to share their stories,” Green said, because that’s the best way to “destigmatize” alcoholism and addiction.
Michelle Williams, Grammy Award-winning singer as part of “Destiny’s Child,” had just signed a new recording contract when she told a friend she was depressed. Shocked, the friend told her she had nothing to be depressed about. So she went without help. Later, her mother helped her find a therapist whose treatment made the difference. Telling someone “You’re successful – you can’t be depressed” is a mistake because depression can hit anyone. Instead, Williams says, when people reveal their struggles, listen and then ask, “What do you need? How can I help?”
Maggie Skoch began struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other mental health issues as a high school student. Today, she’s a medical student at Stritch School of Medicine and the 2016 recipient of the Jerry Greenspan Student Voice of Mental Health. She urged the audience to “use your vision well” to look for what might be happening under the surface as you interact with other people. “Be aware of how you react to others in your lives,” Skoch said. Remember that by encouraging people to share their stories of mental illness, “stigma comes to an end.”
When Allison Schmitt was struggling emotionally at a U.S. Swim team practice, an Olympian from the men’s swim team asked what was happening. Michael Phelps’ caring question let Schmitt acknowledge her struggles and seek help for depression. But the Olympic medalist regrets that she never shared her struggles with her 17-year-old cousin, April, who committed suicide from depression during the same time period when Schmitt was seeking help. After getting treatment herself, Schmitt learned that acknowledging that we are all human and we all struggle is the first step toward showing compassion to people with mental health issues. “We can acknowledge that and together we can all become friends, we can all become family and we can get through this world together.”
Patrick Kennedy’s perspective
Patrick J. Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island in the U.S. Congress for 16 years, is frank about struggles to cope with trauma, mental illness and addiction for himself and his famous extended family. Kennedy is the son of the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and the nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy now lives with bipolar disorder and is a recovering alcoholic. He founded the Kennedy Forum to work toward lasting change in the way the U.S. health care system handles mental health and substance abuse.
Society does not appreciate nor understand that medical issues – not moral failings – drive mental illness and addiction, Kennedy said. As a result, people who suffer from mental illness, as well as their families and friends, often remain silent. When people seek help and it is refused, by friends or by insurance companies, they too often quit seeking.
Kennedy is a fierce advocate for effective insurance coverage for mental health and addictions. He now works to educate people about their rights under the Mental Health Parity and Additional Equity Act of 2008. Kennedy authored the act, which is intended to ensure “parity” when health benefits for mental health and addictions are compared to health benefits for medical/surgical care.
He urged people to report health benefits discrimination for mental illness and addiction at www.parityregistry.org, which will be used to bring civil and legal action against health plans that violate the act.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H, Murthy, M.D., also appeared at the event to discuss the groundbreaking findings of “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.”
Murthy said 21 million people in the U.S. currently struggle with substance abuse disorders, but only one in 10 is getting treatment.
Addiction is a chronic ailment that needs long-term support and treatment, he noted. Every person who overcomes it speaks of relying on loving support from those around them.
“In the fight against addiction, compassion is our most powerful weapon,” Murtha said. “And all of us have the ability to prescribe that.”
- Save the Date: Thursday, September 28 – The Alliance Annual Meeting: Understanding Mental Health and How it Relates to Employers
- Find out more about the Mental Health Parity Act and what it means to employers.
- Read Frequently-Asked Questions (FAQs) about the Mental Health Parity Act on the Kennedy Forum website.
Dernovsek has more than 25 years' experience in communications, public relations and marketing. From 1992 until joining The Alliance, Dernovsek owned her own freelance marketing and writing business to provide marketing consulting and writing for health-care related entities and credit union organizations. Earlier, she was the director of public relations for Rockford Memorial Hospital and city editor for the Beloit Daily News.
Dernovsek graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.
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