Discussing Importance of Mental Health, Substance Use Disorder

By Briana Vannozzi

“This is a medical issue, not a moral failing on the part of those suffering from these illnesses,” said Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of The Kennedy Forum.

After spending his early years trying to hide the mental health and addiction issues plaguing his family, Kennedy — son of the political dynasty — is spending the rest fighting it, anchored here, in New Jersey.

“If this were cancer, we’d be screening them early. Do you have a family history of cancer? Do you have a family history of stroke? I mean, we ask all these questions in the rest of medicine, but not in mental health, not in addiction,” he said.

Kennedy spoke to a couple hundred members of New Jersey’s health care community as part of the New Jersey Hospital Association‘s summit on mental health and substance use disorder. The former congressman and son of Ted Kennedy sponsored the leading legislation for parity, giving physical and mental health equal access to care and coverage.

“The irony is the first time I really talked to my father about these issues was over the negotiating table as we were trying to reconcile my House bill, which included addiction and trauma, and his Senate bill, which only covered biologically based disorders. You can’t make this up,” he said.

He shared detailed memories growing up in a house where addiction dictated daily life. And praised the work being done in New Jersey. At the helm — Gov. Chris Christie, working to turn the tide on opiate addiction.

“We know that our emergency department visits in the state of New Jersey have increased overall by more than 117,000 patients from 2014 to 2015 and nearly half of those individuals — 46 percent — had a mental health or substance use disorder diagnosis,” said New Jersey Hospital Association President and CEO Betsy Ryan.

Last year’s summit announced a behavioral health collaboration with five South Jersey health care providers. Christie told today’s group innovative partnerships will be the way forward. He’s working to build more sober living homes and increase the amount of detox beds in the state.

“The first thing we need to do is to eliminate the shame. The second thing we need to do is we better start educating the medical profession about what’s going on here. It is appalling to me that there is no requirement in medical school curriculum to teach physicians and other health care providers about the dangers of prescribing these drugs,” Christie said.

As chairman of the federal task force to fight opiate addiction, Christie said he plans to visit Silicon Valley and use the thinkers at Google and Facebook to revamp prevention education.

“See here’s the problem. We believe as a society — even though we don’t say this out loud, our actions are saying it — that these people are getting what they deserve. We are saying to people, you made the choice to try drugs in the first place. What do you want us to do about it?” Christie said.

The two political powerhouses vowed to keep this a non-partisan issue, stressing its urgency.

Kennedy called this a shared responsibility. Echoing his late uncle RFK’s famous “ripple of hope” speech, he said it’s part of all our lives to help bring about this change.

Correction: May 2, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated, using information provided by Gov. Chris Christie in his speech, that a recent Pew study showed four out of five heroin addicts began with prescription opioids. This information did not come from Pew. It came from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA.