The Contributions of the Kennedy Family to People with Mental Illness

The NY Times has quite appropriately taken note of a major change in Washington. For the first time in more than 60 years, there will be no Kennedys in Congress or the White House.

When I look at the Kennedy family through the lens of my profession, nothing stands out more than their service to people with mental illness. Rosemary Kennedy (JFK’s sister) was developmentally disabled and spent 60 years in an institution after being lobotomized. This heartbreaking situation galvanized the family’s interest in and activism on behalf of people with developmental and psychiatric disorders. President Kennedy transformed the lives of mentally ill people by spearheading the establishment of community mental health centers as an alternative to long-term hospitalization. Senator Ted Kennedy was a force of nature when it came to supporting educational and health services for children with developmental disabilities, and he and Congressman Patrick Kennedy were both critical to the passage of the law that established parity in health insurance coverage for mental illness and addiction. Patrick is now launching a philanthropic initiative to support research in neurology and neuroscience that can translate into treatment breakthroughs.

The last time I spoke with Patrick we talked mainly about how the Congress had changed over his career. I gave him credit for something that I am not sure even he had appreciated: Caring for people with mental illness has now become a taken for granted goal in the Congress. For decades, it would often be the role of a few members who had personal or family experiences to push for compassionate care for people with mental illness and addiction. Yet after the 2008 election, which saw the exit of one time voices in the wilderness such as Senator Pete Domenichi, Senator Gordon Smith and Congressman Jim Ramstad, mental health related issues didn’t lose any steam on the Hill. Indeed, provisions in the Affordable Care Act give as strong coverage to mental illness and addiction as any law in memory. That those provisions drew broad bipartisan support shows that providing treatment for mental illness and addiction is now mainstream, and no family did more to facilitate that cultural and political transformation than the Kennedys.