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Bipolar and addicted, Patrick Kennedy embodies mental health challenges

Published: Sunday, Feb. 17 2013 11:05 p.m. MST

Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy on Capitol Hill in Washington before leaving office when his term ended in 2011.

Associated Press

Patrick Kennedy received several wake-up calls before he finally heard the bell.

Perhaps the most dramatic was at 2:45 a.m. on a May morning in 2006, when the five-term congressman from Rhode Island drove into a barricade at the U.S. Capitol, appearing incoherent as he told police he was late for a vote.

The next day at a press conference, Kennedy acknowledged that he suffered from long-standing drug and alcohol addiction combined with a bipolar disorder that often pairs with addiction.

It's tough for a Kennedy to walk away from politics, and for four more years he soldiered on. But in January 2011 he left Congress, realizing that he needed time and space to get well.

Feb. 22 marks two years of complete sobriety for Kennedy, and the bipolar disorder is controlled. In the interval he married Amy Petitgout, a middle school teacher. He now has a stepdaughter from his wife's previous marriage and a son, Owen, born last April. Grounding himself in a strong nuclear family has been both a source of strength and a payoff for his progress.

Mental illness is very much a family matter. More than 4 million American children and adolescents suffer from serious mental challenges that cause significant disruption at home or school, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Half of all mental disorders begin by age 14, and 21 percent of children aged 9 to 17 have some degree of mental or addictive impairment.

Policy advocate

Since leaving Congress, Kennedy has not only gotten well, he has also made the leap from mental health poster boy to mental health policy advocate. Shortly after leaving Congress, he helped launch One Mind for Research, an intensive 10-year project designed to unify and advance treatment research on mental health and substance addiction.

One Mind's CEO is Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, who has worked extensively on post-traumatic stress among returning soldiers.

Kennedy calls the project a "moon shot to the mind."

The shot will need to be quick, because policy changes are already afoot. In 2008, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed a statute requiring insurance companies to treat mental illness and substance addiction the same as other maladies. Kennedy was a leading co-sponsor of the bill.

But the "parity" law is not yet fully implemented, and advocates are anxiously awaiting final rules from the Obama administration. Late last month two former U.S. senators, Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Gordon Smith,R-Ore., wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed challenging the administration to speed up the new rules. Both senators arrived there the hard way. Domenici has a daughter who suffers from schizophrenia, and Smith lost a son to depression-bred suicide.

And yet, when the new insurance rules do come online, health professionals will be torn between expectations that they treat mental illnesses as routine medical procedures and the persistent reality that diagnosis and treatment for most mental maladies remain opaque.

The task before Kennedy and his allies is to see through policy changes while shifting public attitudes and accelerating research. The complex influences of genetics and environment on the mind remain a daunting jungle.

Predispositions

"Addiction is almost inevitable," Kennedy said, "if you experiment and use as a teenager, when your brain is not fully developed, before the prefrontal cortex has made its connections to the rest of the brain."

"That doesn't happen until your early 20s," he said. "We know now that nine out of 10 alcoholics and addicts started when they were teenagers." He knows. He was there.

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