Denver, CO,
04:53 PM

Patrick Kennedy Highlights DU’s Work to Redefine Mental Health

The Graduate School of Professional Psychology is changing the ways we treat and talk about mental health

Patrick Kennedy very easily could not have been on the History Colorado Center stage last week. Had things gone slightly differently on a fateful night in 2006, he wouldn’t be leading the charge to improve mental health and substance abuse care.

A few inches one way or the other and he would be in jail.

But instead of driving his car into a capitol security guard that night in Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago, then-Congressman Kennedy collided with reality.

“No one ever chooses to be public with their addiction or their mental illness,” said Kennedy, who was under the influence of prescription drugs when his car hit a barricade on Capitol Hill. “It’s still so negative and pejorative to wear the label of ‘addict, alcoholic, mentally ill person, bipolar’ that no one is really the one who volunteers this. In my case, obviously, it came in the wake of an arrest.”

Against the desires of his father, the legendary late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Patrick chose to go public. In the years since, the former Democratic representative from Rhode Island has drawn on his life experiences — as a cocaine user, alcoholic and OxyContin abuser with bipolar disorder — on a crusade to redefine mental health in this country.

In February, he led a community conversation, hosted by the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology, aimed at taking on the stigma mental health and addiction can carry.

“I never cease to be amazed in the way even my judgment gets in the way of reaching out to people who need help, even though I’d like to think of myself as someone who is compassionate and open-minded,” Kennedy said. “But it just reminds me how deep this is in all of us, this bias and prejudice against those who behave and act in a way that startles us, that unnerves us, that makes us feel uncomfortable and makes us step away in fear.”

Conversation can be the counterbalance to normalize mental health issues Kennedy considers just as serious and deserving of attention as cancer, diabetes or other chronic illnesses.

Through his nonprofit The Kennedy Forum, the former congressman has made it his mission to integrate mental health into the general health-care model. He would like to see all routine visits to the doctor include screenings for depression and addiction.

“The brain is part of the body,” Kennedy told the audience. Yet mental health has never been highly valued or well funded. Instead, Kennedy said, it’s seen as the pariah no one wants to acknowledge, much less talk about.

“It’s shocking that we’ve had to advocate on behalf of mental health as if it’s some special sidebar issue that needs to be promoted,” he said. Address that and, “we’ll address our criminal justice issues, we’ll address a lot of our health-care issues, we’ll address a lot of our education issues, we’ll address a lot of our economic issues. The ripple effect of doing the right thing in mental health is enormous.”

University students and their institutions are at the forefront of the movement to normalize the conversation around mental illness and addiction, Kennedy said. Newly trained clinicians willing to turn the tide are essential to expand and apply a new knowledge base.

GSPP has devoted itself to the cause in 2018, offering a full schedule of events to hone in on mental health and spread the word about the school’s mental health clinics and community resources. The school’s Center for Oncology Psychology Excellence (COPE), the first psychology graduate-level specialty of its kind in the nation, specifically trains students to meet the psychological needs of cancer patients and their caregivers through collaboration. GSPP is also leading the effort of bringing together knowledge leadership from our community and across the country to ignite conversations and action that change the ways in which we treat and talk about mental health.

“Your university and the work that you’re doing is so crucial to the overall mission,” Kennedy told GSPP Dean Shelly Smith-Acuña. “There are not enough schools of professional psychology teaching the whole spectrum of various modalities of how to treat mental illnesses. We need more of you.”