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Patrick Kennedy opens up about family's struggle with mental illness ahead of CofC speech

PATRICK KENNEDY (1).jpg
Patrick Kennedy (WCIV)

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy is in the Lowcountry this week, preparing to speak Wednesday at the College of Charleston about mental health issues -- issues all too personal for Kennedy and his prominent family.

Kennedy, son of the late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, has spent his entire life has been in the public eye, and says the exposure he grew up with once made it difficult for him to discuss his family’s battle with mental illness.

But since retiring from Congress, Kennedy says he’s now decided to use his platform to advocate for those living with mental illnesses, often in silence and solitude.

Kennedy says he’s personally had many dark nights battling with depression, often feeling he had no hope of feeling better.

It's a a feeling he says generations in his family dealt with before him, but never spoke of.

“I wrote a personal memoir called, A Common Struggle," Kennedy said Tuesday. "It was through that process that I learned that my grandmother, on my moms side, died alone.”

It would be a week before her body was found in her home.

“She was so isolated due to her alcoholism,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy's mother also battles alcoholism in addition to depression, he says.

"I know she inherited that from her mother,” says Kennedy.

Kennedy's family is infamously accustomed to tragedy, and the mental health impacts of those horrific events manifested in his late father a differnt way, he says.

“My father suffered from tremendous post-traumatic stress after seeing his brothers murdered. All of that effects the whole family,” said Kennedy.

But Kennedy believes the cycle can be broken, as long as a muzzle doesn’t silence the conversation,

”Hopefully, my children's generation do not have to suffer in silence the way my parents’ generation and before theirs, as well as mine, had to suffer in silence because this was so stigmatized,” says Kennedy.

Kennedy spent seven years in congress. While there, he was a chief sponsor of the Mental Health Parity Act, which he says he designed in hopes that finances would never get in the way of someone seeking treatment.

“I wrote the federal law signed by President George W. Bush that says (we) need to treat brain illnesses the way they treat every other set of illnesses,” Kennedy recalled. “If you as a family need to get treated for one of these illnesses, and your insurance company says no, you should appeal the decision and call your attorney general here in South Carolina and say you need to investigate this insurance company because they're in violation of federal law.”

Kennedy says he's thankful for the help he's received from time spent in rehab and seeing countless doctors. Howver, there's a smaller group of people he says have been all the support he's ever needed.

“I have a family today I never could’ve imagined having seven years ago. I’ve got an incredible wife who is supportive of my recovery. I have four beautiful children who watch me go to 12-step recovery, who are able to be supportive of me," Kennedy says. "My life today is very fulfilled."

Kennedy will be speaking Wednesday at the College of Charleston's Stern Center Ballroom at 10 a.m. The event is called, "My Journey: Making Mental Health Essential Health," It is free and open to the public.