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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Former congressman Patrick Kennedy calls for proactive mental health treatment during Spokane speech

Patrick Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2011, speaks Wednesday  at a community conversation on mental health. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

After being introduced as “the nation’s leading political voice on mental health, addiction and other brain diseases,” Patrick Kennedy demurred.

“That should indicate how bad off we are in this country,” Kennedy said, kicking off a speech Wednesday night at the Spokane Convention Center. The talk was sponsored by Providence Health Care and Eastern Washington University.

The former U.S. Congressman from Rhode Island added his voice to a discussion about improving mental health and addiction treatment, detailing his own struggles with drug use and relapse during his time in Congress.

In 2006, he crashed his car through a police barricade on Capitol Hill and missed killing an officer by inches, he said. The incident prompted him to go to rehab, where he received help detoxing off opiates and sleep medication.

Because his addiction was public knowledge, he said, members of Congress came into his office to tell him about their family members’ addictions and their own struggles with mental health.

“I’m the only face that they knew in the whole Congress that had a mental health addiction issue,” Kennedy said.

Yet as he pushed forward a parity law requiring insurers to treat mental health care as they would any other illness, the support when the bill passed was less than he’d hoped for.

“Many of my colleagues who told me personal stories voted no,” he said.

The bill eventually became law in 2008, but is routinely disregarded.

Kennedy, a son of Sen. Ted Kennedy, left Congress in 2011, and turned his focus on his own recovery. Since then, he’s been pushing to build an advocacy movement around mental health and addiction treatment.

He’d like to see a movement of people advocating for state attorneys general to enforce parity laws by going after insurance companies, he said. He’d also like to see more groups pushing for upstream programs that treat mental illness and addiction in early stages as part of primary care.

“We wait until they become stage 4 illnesses before we even begin to treat them,” he said, pointing out that scoliosis screening is routine in elementary schools, but screening kids for trauma or assessing their mental health is not.

Panelists in a discussion following Kennedy’s talk agreed.

“We don’t think it’s going to happen to us,” said Linda Thompson, executive director of the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council and a Spokane Valley councilwoman. In 1986, her 3-year-old son was killed by a drunken driver with 17 prior arrests and no convictions. The event prompted her to devote her career to promoting treatment.

Getting cash-strapped public agencies to agree to spend money up front for programs that will save on jail costs in the long run is hard because “it’s hard to prove what didn’t happen,” Thompson said.

Changing that will require more people with mental illnesses and addictions, as well as their loved ones, pushing for change.

“Cancer’s getting a ton of money, God bless ’em,” Kennedy said. “They’re not getting it just because it’s cancer. They’re getting it because people are advocating for it.”