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Behavioral health is a civil rights issue: Patrick Kennedy's powerful talk at GIH 2015

Behavioral health is a civil rights issue: Patrick Kennedy's powerful talk at GIH 2015

“Great city. Great conference,” is how I would summarize the March 2015 Grantmakers in Health (GIH) conference in Austin. MeHAF was well represented with four Trustees and five staff attending. MeHAF staff co-presented 6 of the 32 workshop sessions. More than once, colleagues from across the country joked that “MeHAF seems to be everywhere this year.”

For me, the highlight was a powerful plenary session on behavioral health (a first for GIH), featuring former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy II, who wrote and championed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. He stirred the crowd with a passionate appeal for more attention to the needs of the 57 million Americans who experience mental illness and/or substance abuse each year. 

He reminded us that health foundations can’t be effective if we aren’t addressing behavioral health needs. He challenged us to “treat the brain like a part of the body,” saying evidence-based programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership and the integration of mental health and addiction services into primary care are essential and need our support. He explained that treating behavioral health is a “force multiplier” that impacts other areas of health and that optimizes good health. By intervening early, we can make a real difference. “At school, kids get their eyes checked, their hearing checked. How about a checkup from the neck up?” he advocated.

Kennedy pointed out how America has missed the mark by turning our jails and prisons into the largest mental health center in the US. “Today’s jails are the old asylums,” he asserted, observing that people continue to be locked up instead of treated for their mental health or substance use condition. Emphasizing that behavioral health is about health, not character, Kennedy said, “Mental illness is an epidemic we look away from…and we are marginalizing our own family members.”

With a fiery passion, he shared an analogy that stays with me, “Five people die in Ohio every day from substance abuse. If they were dolphins on the shores of the Ohio River, there would be an outcry….Let’s stop averting our eyes from mental illness. It is a civil rights issue.” 

As one twitter feed pointed out, Patrick Kennedy “peeled the paint off the walls about mental health.” His keynote message was all the more powerful because a foundation colleague and friend to Congressman Kennedy and many in the audience had completed suicide just days before the conference, ending too soon a life full of potential. This friend contributed significantly to health philanthropy. He readily shared a broad smile, laughter, and easy conversation. He made everyone feel included and valued, making it easy to miss the pain he was experiencing. 

Not only did this colleague’s death surprise and sadden us; it prompted deep reflection for those of us who fund behavioral health initiatives, such as MeHAF’s multi-year, $14 million investment in integrated behavioral health and primary care and our current Behavioral Health Homes funding. As I talked with peers all week, we pondered whether we are contributing enough and supporting the right kinds of systemic and community-based interventions that would best improve the lives of people experiencing behavioral health conditions. Are we including their unique perspectives and needs when designing programs in behavioral health? Are we speaking up for them when needed? Are we willing to take the policy and advocacy risks that would generate more public funding and support for people with behavioral health needs?

One thing we all agreed on was the fact that we could be doing more, both as funders and as individuals. As funders, we could include behavioral health in our programming, particularly when it focuses on integrating behavioral health and routine health care delivery. As individuals, we could consistently say we are offended when we hear people with behavioral health issues being portrayed negatively. We could be more willing to listen to, to support, and to care for people when they need our help. We could always ask whenever health is being discussed, “Do you include behavioral health?”  We could all champion public policies that support recovery. 

Finally, we could look to and emulate role models such as Representative Kennedy. After his legislative accomplishments in Congress, he co-founded One Mind for Research and found the Kennedy Forum on Community Mental Health. 

Each of us can do more to help. All of us on the GIH Behavioral Health Funders’ Steering Committee agreed that we need to do whatever we can, professionally and personally, to make certain other people do not have to suffer as our late colleague must have. 

What do you think MeHAF and we as a society could do to make certain every person in pain due to behavioral health conditions gets the treatment, support, compassion, and understanding needed to be able to recover and to be healthy in our homes, our communities, our state, and our country? We are all worth that. Please share your ideas.

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