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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT