He’s a Kennedy, What Does He Have to Be Depressed About?

NOV. 10, 2015

By Luna Greenstein

Behind the Wall

A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness

By Patrick Kennedy


On Feb. 29, 2000, at the Woonsocket Senior Center in Rhode Island, Patrick Kennedy unexpectedly opened up to the public about his mental health conditions. While he felt somewhat relieved to finally let go of the secrecy, the media derided him with stigmatizing comments. The question in the air was what did a Kennedy have to be depressed about?

After being publically made fun of, the media started calling people in the mental health sphere for comment. They reached out to the NAMI deputy executive director at the time, Bill Emmet, who happened to be the first person Kennedy ever talked to about mental health parity. Emmet’s response to the media was simple, straightforward and, above all, brutally honest: “Saying Patrick has nothing to be depressed about is like saying Patrick has no reason to have heart disease, no reason to have cancer.”

To further this point, Kennedy mentions a time in his life when he learns that he has a tumor on his spinal cord as a happy occasion—it is the first time there is something wrong with his health that he could prove.

Throughout his new book, A Common Struggle, Kennedy chronicles how mental health influenced both his personal life and his career through these stories and others. He goes through his own personal mental heath journey living with depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse while also highlighting the history and evolution of the mental health system.

An important element of the book is hidden trauma and the mental health conditions that resided within his family. “The more I was confronted in therapy…the more I had to admit that my family issues were not unique at all,” Kennedy writes. “Fathers and sons, worrying about expectations and legacies, speaking but not really talking. Families trying to ignore mental illness and addiction. These are common problems, really common.” In his family, standard protocol was to bottle up trauma, avoid publicity and self-medicate.

One of those family members deeply affected was his father, and Senator, Teddy Kennedy. Patrick Kennedy writes about how the assassinations of both of his uncles had a rippling effect on his father’s mental health. “My father went on in silent desperation for much of his life, self-medicating and unwittingly passing his unprocessed trauma on to my sister, brother and me… His own anguish was palpable and unspoken... Since he was the more emotionally available of my parents, I derived most of my emotional foundation from his strength and his turmoil.”

His relationship with his father is a critical aspect of the book. Almost every period of his life that he shares in the book connects back to their relationship in some way. His father’s political strength and power as a U.S. Senator was something he used as a model to follow and emulate. Unfortunately, he also followed in his father’s footsteps when it came to substance abuse. 

Kennedy is very open throughout the book about his struggle with substance abuse. His story goes back and forth through times of recovery and relapse. His poignant examples display the harsh reality that a person can face when struggling with addiction. For example, in 2008, Kennedy received a prescription for painkillers after breaking his hand. He knew they would send him into a downward spiral, but immediately made plans in his mind to abuse them. He writes, “I can still remember how much I craved those pills, how much one part of my brain wanted the drug, and the other part of my brain was telling me it wasn’t a good idea.”

Luckily, for Kennedy, his friend and office manager Terri was there to help. “I’m still amazed at how much courage it took for Terri to confront me, and how many acts of emotional bravery, large and small, it really takes to care about someone with these illnesses,” he proclaims. In the same passage, he commends all people who help to look after people who live with a mental health condition. He understands that it’s not an easy task and it should be appreciated.

Kennedy had to suppress his urges for alcohol and drugs while simultaneously serving as a public face trying to pass the legislation that could positively change the lives of millions of people who shared his struggle.

Parity for mental health care that included care for substance abuse disorders was something that Kennedy and his father fought for together. This issue carried an important weight for both of them because this was something that they themselves struggled with, along with numerous family members. He was never able to muster up the courage to point out to his father that the bill they were fighting for would also help their family. “Did he realize that one of the families that this bill was supposed to help de-stigmatize was ours?” he wanted to ask. “Did he know that making sure that the bill wasn’t only about mental illness but about alcoholism and drug addiction was about us too?”

Kennedy’s personal experience gives him an inside view to the parity that he is fighting for. Throughout the book, there are several points where Kennedy eloquently demonstrates how debilitating and challenging it is to not only live with a mental illness, but also be stigmatized for it. The wisdom he derives from his experiences with stigma and perception are woven through almost every page in A Common Struggle. This book is a candid and genuine depiction of Kennedy’s life living with numerous mental health conditions.


AUG, 15, 2016 04:53:54 PM
Barbara Prlina
Maureen, I am so sorry for all that you have been through. You are a truly a strong, loving, woman. And an amazing survivor. Try watching, "Happyish" on Netflix. It's a good binge series about how messed up humanity is. You might get a few laughs. In the meantime, keep on doing on, and know that at least we die eventually and then we will know why we're here. But you can't get to the "know" part without faith and pain. It's all a part of being human.. Animals have it much worse than we do. They get attacked from out of nowhere by a freaking lion and eaten alive. Things could be worse.

AUG, 15, 2016 04:50:52 PM
Barbara Prlina
Maureen, I am so sorry for all that you have been through. You are a truly a strong, loving, woman. And an amazing survivor. Try watching, "Happyish" on Netflix. It's a good binge series about how messed up humanity is. You might get a few laughs. In the meantime, keep on doing on, and know that at least we die eventually and then we will know why we're here. But you can't get to the "know" part without faith and pain. It's all a part of being human.. Animals have it much worse than we do. They get attacked from out of nowhere by a freaking lion and eaten alive. Things could be worse.

JUL, 27, 2016 04:32:57 PM
Barbara Prlina
I went to see a sleep apnea Dr. today and he pulled up my "story": suicide, meds, psychiatric labels etc. and he asked me, "Is this you?" I looked at the lengthy list and said, "yep, that's me, or was me." I advocate for myself all the time and even volunteer information such as suicide on my health record. One way to advocate for yourself is to know you're rights as a mental health patient. Doctors are required, by law, to provide coping strategies, and help you find resources so you can get better. Unfortunately, most GP's don't know much about mental health, so it is up to us to advocate for ourselves. We have to educate physicians and even psychiatrists about what we feel we need beyond medications. We need to find connection groups, become politically active, and tell our stories to those we trust or to a large audience of people interested in us. Finally, the reason this Dr. asked, "Is this you?" was because I present myself as a normal person. I act normal, practice my tone of voice to that of a strong woman, work out, get my hair and nails done, and practice good hygiene. I know it's hard. I truly hate doing these things. I hate shopping, I get impatient at nail salons, I don't like doing my hair. But if you look like a mental patient, then you will be even more stigmatized as you advocate for yourself and self-determine. Some other things you can do is take classes in things you are interested in - maybe psychology, jewelry making, creating a self sustaining garden, astronomy. We are not stupid people, we have a disease that has to be managed just like any other disease.

JUL, 25, 2016 10:03:46 AM
Barbara Prlina
Denise, I am new to this site and read your post. I have the same issues you do, but it is because of my family that I have them. I experienced childhood neglect, alcoholic parents, divorced parents, lived with aunts and uncles whom have all abandoned me. My brother and sister and I all trigger PTSD in one another, so I decided it was best for me to abandon them, and the rest of my extended family who are completely emotionally unavailable. I started taking my anti-depressant because the loss was almost unbearable, but I keep reminding myself, daily, of why I did this, and every time, I feel that it was a good thing to do. So does my psychiatrist.

DEC, 01, 2015 10:00:06 PM
Lisa duTrieuille
I would just like to respond to Denise Kastner comments about the fact that she said she would rather have kidney failure than a mental illness. I have stage three kidney disease and my father has stage five kidney disease. I have five mental illnesses- bipolar disorder, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, anxiety and anorexia in remission. I can honestly say I would rather have just mental illnesses to deal with than my kidney's functioning at 59%. I am lucky that I don't need dialysis because my father who is 86 years old goes to dialysis three days a week. It is gut wrenching to watch my father waste away before my eyes. I am managing my mental illnesses. Also, on December 3rd of this year, it will be 800 days since I last self-harmed. I am managing my mental illnesses and I don't let them define me. Just today in my therapy session, my therapist talked about how proud she was of me for having gotten bunion surgery on both feet, putting my anorexia "out of a job" and not having self-harmed in over two years. I do see my illnesses as a part of who I am and if I had to do it again, I would still choose the same path.

NOV, 26, 2015 08:34:26 PM
Denise Kastner
My family has abandoned me due to Bipolar, PTSD, GAD and depression. I realize these disorders may cause my behavior to be annoying. My one real rock, my husband of 27 years, had an affair and his divorcing me for her. As hurt and lost as I am, I do understand. The stigma is alive and well as well as the lack of understanding. I would rather have kidney failure than this. I doubt my family would have become estranged if my disease was more acceptable.

NOV, 25, 2015 10:10:34 PM
I have lived with a mentally ill son for all but 4 years of my life. My 38-year-old lives with me now because I can devote myself to his needs in my retirement. This may sound like a difficult task for a senior citizen, and it was indeed was most trying time in my life when after my husband died, my son lived and declined in group homes, and then moved home unstablized on the wrong medicstion. However, after I resigned from my work, and dealt with my son's illness with costly legal intervention, hospitalization leading to an appropriate medical prescription and psychological therapy, he has gradually become a very pleasant companion to me. He is improving, getting his personality back, and is for the most part, a compassionate, sensitive individual. I only wish there had been earlier intervention.

NOV, 11, 2015 02:42:30 PM
Pauline Fife
If you have physical pain you go to a doctor get a diagnosis and treatment. If you have mental pain it's still ***** it up, pull yourself together, move on. With all this #stigma no wonder there is more #suicide. #Stop the Stigma

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.