Skip to main content

Wipe out the stigma of mental illness

By Patrick J. Kennedy, Special to CNN
June 17, 2013 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
President John F. Kennedy, shown in 1962, was a champion of rights and services for the mentally ill.
President John F. Kennedy, shown in 1962, was a champion of rights and services for the mentally ill.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 50 years ago, President Kennedy defined civil rights and equality as a moral issue
  • Patrick Kennedy: It's also a moral issue that people with mental illness are treated equally
  • Those with mental illness, brain injuries face stigma and inadequate health care, he says
  • Kennedy: JFK championed helping the mentally ill, it's time to re-dedicate our efforts

Editor's note: Patrick J. Kennedy is the former U.S. representative for Rhode Island's 1st congressional district, serving from 1995 until 2011. He is a son of the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

(CNN) -- Fifty years ago, we stood at a moral crossroads as a nation.

The day was June 11, 1963. That morning, then-Gov. George Wallace attempted to block integration of the University of Alabama with his futile "stand at the schoolhouse door." Hours later, civil rights leader Medgar Evers would be gunned down in the driveway of his home by a white supremacist. In between, my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, took to the airwaves in a historic televised address on civil rights -- one that would forever change the way our nation perceived the struggle for racial equality.

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," President Kennedy said that night, hours before Evers was killed. "It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities." You can listen to his speech here.

Patrick J. Kennedy
Patrick J. Kennedy

It was a seminal moment in our history. President Kennedy defined for the nation the struggle for equality not just as a constitutional or legal issue, but as a moral one as well.

Five decades later, we're again at a crossroads as a country. As we mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's famous speech, the question he asked the American people that evening from the Oval Office remains strikingly relevant -- shouldn't all Americans be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities?

Sadly, when it comes to the treatment of people with mental illness, addiction and brain injury, equality remains unattained.

In America in 2013, thousands of our fellow citizens are still marginalized. They are still discriminated against. They face stigma every day. Today, too many Americans are told that they're less entitled to health care than those who have diseases like diabetes or cancer or asthma, just because the origin of their illness is in their brain. Without equality, or parity, insurers can refuse to cover mental illnesses at the same level as other physical illnesses, making it harder for people to get well and often further isolating them in their struggle. Together, we must change that.

The words [President Kennedy] used to describe the insufficient attention and resources devoted to mental health in 1963 could still be said today.
Patrick J. Kennedy

Eliminating the stigma of mental illness -- and finally achieving parity for its treatment -- is the next chapter in America's civil rights movement.

When I represented Rhode Island in Congress, I fought for the rights of people with mental illness, and was proud to sponsor -- along with my father, Sen. Ted Kennedy -- the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act to provide access to mental health treatment for tens of millions of Americans who previously were denied care. Signed into law by President Bush in 2008, this landmark legislation requires health insurers that offer coverage for mental illness and substance use disorders to provide those benefits in a no more restrictive way than all other medical and surgical procedures covered by the plan. This was a proud moment for me, but those with mental illnesses are still waiting for some pieces of this law to be implemented.

For those with mental illness, this October marks another landmark 50th anniversary -- President Kennedy's signing into law of the historic Community Mental Health Act. This legislation, and the words he used to describe it, laid the foundation for contemporary mental health policy.

These historic dates are important to remember, but as we look back, we are reminded not just of inspiration and achievement, but also where we have fallen short. Because while President Kennedy set us on the right course, the words he used to describe the insufficient attention and resources devoted to mental health in 1963 could still be said today: "This situation has been tolerated far too long. It has troubled our national conscience -- but only as a problem unpleasant to mention, easy to postpone, and despairing of solution."

He then said, "The time has come for a bold new approach."

This October, as we mark this important occasion, I am proud to launch the inaugural "The Kennedy Forum," an annual event that will serve as a vehicle to honor President Kennedy's efforts, celebrate the progress made in the past half-century, and rededicate the entire mental health community to further progress. We have to eradicate the stigma of mental illness once and for all, and treat mental illness equal to other physical illnesses, so that all Americans can lead dignified lives and share in the benefits of our society.

We are confronted with a moral issue but also a historic opportunity. We have the chance to take action and live up to the principle upon which America was founded: that all people are afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick J. Kennedy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT