Exploring Human Potential

In Support of Patrick Kennedy – and Family Health.

Posted on | October 8, 2015 | 2 Comments


Mike Magee

This week, on October 6th, I hung on to “Morning Joe” a bit longer than I normally do to hear the interview of Patrick Kennedy by Joe Scarborough. My interest was personal, knowing some of the players, but also as a member of a large Catholic family (12 kids) with our own credo of family loyalty and our own share of trials and tribulations.

Two days earlier, Lesley Stahl had interviewed him on “60 Minutes”, his first public interview promoting his new memoir, “A Common Struggle”. That interview had veered off subject to Patrick’s father – Was he an alcoholic? Did he suffer from PTSD in the wake of his brothers’ assassinations? Valid questions I suppose, but coming close to suggesting this as just another book about America’s most famous (and tragic) family.

But in reality, Patrick’s book is much more than that. In it, he displays a modern understanding of the meaning of health as “human potential”. He clearly explains that unhealthy behaviors are often inherited, as both genetic and social constructs. And most importantly, he reveals that families, in their conspiracy of silence,  often contribute to the problem rather than to the solution – and that communities and leaders are complicit.

In thirteen minutes, last Tuesday, Patrick Kennedy provided more health education on the subject of alcohol addiction, mental health, and their treatment, than I received in nearly a decade of training to be a physician.

As the interview opened, Joe Scarborough alluded to the fact that Patrick had broken some silent code, and at least some family members had reacted angrily. Why did he write the story?

Patrick’s answer, a simple three word sentence, declared his emancipation, and his right to both health and happiness, for he and his wife and children. He said simply: “It’s my story.” But what came through was, “It’s my life, and I’m taking control of it.”

He explained, “Often times you’re expected to keep your parents secrets. And yet it will bedevil you your whole life because we all grow up to be our parents. And everything that happens to you as children, we will live with that for the rest of our lives. And what makes that worse is keeping that secret or thinking that you’re keeping that secret…What I’m saying is that my story about keeping quiet in my family is like every other family in America who has these illnesses. Say nothing! Do nothing! See nothing!”

Patrick goes on to explain that the book explains in detail the policy issues involved with achieving expanded coverage and care for those suffering from mental illness and and addiction. He explains how he and his father wrote the Parity Law. Back then, law makers wanted nothing to do with it. As Patrick said, “No one wanted to be the author of Parity. No one wanted the words mental health and addiction next to their name.” When it did pass, he says, insurance companies wasted little time in figuring out how to renege on their obligations.

It is an individual disease marked by shame. In his words, “One of the biggest barriers is no one wants to be known as a patient who is getting mental health treatment or addiction treatment.” But that shame, for him, was uniquely reinforced by a secret code of silence. This extended not only to his parents, siblings and extended family, but also to the many important visitors and guests who wandered the hallways of his famous home in his formative years. Routinely, he was forced to witness his inebriated and incapacitated mother wandering in bathrobe midday past friends and family, heads down, all of whom refused to acknowledge, let alone confront, the disease. That was its’ cruel power over the family, and in part, over him, until recently.

At the core of his family was this secret, eating away at everyone’s health. As Patrick experienced it,  “It’s an illness and we are running away from it. My family does not want to be identified with mental illness. That should tell you something about the shame and stigma that still surrounds this issue.”

So where did he find the courage to stand up to it? For whom, and why now? He said, “I have kids now. I don’t want my kids to feel ashamed because they have a genetic predisposition for mental illness and addiction. I want them to get treatment for them. I don’t want them to keep secret the fact that they have an emotional life, a spiritual life. We ought to be paying as much attention to their mental health as the rest of their physical health.”

The reaction from the family has been mixed. His older brother and his mother have issued statements disavowing and criticizing the book. Most family members have remained silent. And a few of the extended family have voiced support. Those who have focused on his right to speak out. In his words, “… a number of members of the family said I love your message that this is about breaking the silence and shame because all of us are saddled with the hangover of a shame that comes with growing up where you are not supposed to tell anything about what happened to you personally. That affects somebody if they are growing up in a family where everything is supposed to be kept quiet.”

As for the disapproval of his older brother, he said simply, “I love him, and I will always love him.” And added, “All I can do is do the next right thing and pray that my brother will understand that what I’m trying to do here is bigger than both of us. And that’s what my dad was all about – trying to make a difference for more people. I’m trying to move the ball forward as he did in his life.”

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee


2 Responses to “In Support of Patrick Kennedy – and Family Health.”

  1. daayur
    October 14th, 2015 @ 12:49 am

    I agree with the writers evaluation on this issue. thanks

  2. Prince
    September 3rd, 2017 @ 7:05 pm

    Hello Mike,

    This post is so touching. Thanks for sharing

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