Patrick J. Kennedy

The First Friday Club of Chicago


The Honorable Patrick J. Kennedy

Former U.S. Congressman (D, R.I.)

Commissioner - President's Commission on

Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis

Topic Addressed:

“Challenging One of the Last Social Taboos –

Discrimination Against Mental Health, Addiction, and Other

Brain Diseases”

In a society today where almost anything goes, certain topics and issues are not discussed in polite company or even in private. Mental health and drug addiction lead the list.

We can talk about having cancer, ALS, acute diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, and high blood pressure, but we find it difficult, if not impossible, to admit to bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or chemical dependency. After all, people may think less of us. It could cost us our job or stand in the way of a promotion. The world sees a human weakness, not a neurological or psychiatric disease. In fact, it was only in 2010 that the Federal Parity Act began requiring health insurance companies to treat illnesses of the brain such as depression and addiction in the same way they treat illnesses of the body.

The standard-bearer and perhaps the person most responsible for challenging taboos around mental health and addictive diseases is former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. During his time in Congress, Kennedy sponsored and was the lead architect of the Federal Parity Act. And more than ten years ago, Patrick Kennedy broke his family’s code of silence when he publicly acknowledged having bipolar disorder and being a recovering alcoholic. As of 2018, Mr. Kennedy says he has been sober for more than six years.

Patrick Kennedy represented Rhode Island’s First Congressional District from 1995 through 2011, sponsoring dozens of bills to increase understanding and treatment of addiction and other brain disorders. Since leaving Congress in 2011, he founded the nonprofit Kennedy Forum to lead a national dialogue on mental health and addiction involving advocates, business, and government. Locally, Kennedy Forum Illinois works to end discrimination against people with mental health and addiction challenges here in our state. Kennedy also cofounded One Mind, an organization that funds “open science” research on brain diseases, encouraging scientists to widely share their findings about Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, addiction, depression, and other diseases. His 2015 book, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction, chronicles his own struggles along with his political advocacy supporting mental health and addiction care.