Former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy visited the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics at the USC Gould School of Law on Monday to join with USC Gould Professor Elyn Saks, USC law student Evan Langinger and USC psychiatry resident Michelle Wu to engage in a discussion panel on mental illness. The audience included many prominent members of local mental illness reform advocacy groups.
A former Rhode Island representive, Kennedy opened the event by describing his past with mental illness. Kennedy, who was accused of driving under the influence of prescription drugs in 2006, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and an addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs while at a drug rehabilitation facility.
Kennedy came to the event as a mental health advocate. He told of his efforts in Congress that resulted in the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, a 2008 bill that requires most health insurance companies to afford mental illnesses with the same amount of coverage with which they treat physical illnesses.
Kennedy originally became involved with the Saks Institute for personal reasons.
“Elyn is a personal friend and someone I admire greatly. In the community of mental health she is one of our brightest stars because she has taken on the most difficult issue related to mental illness and that is the destigmatization of [mental illness],” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said he came to USC with the intention of bringing awareness to the community about mental illnesses and helping begin the discussion about acceptance for those who are mentally ill. Many students who attended the panel were eager to hear about possible changes to mental illness legislation.
“I’m all for the elimination of the mental health taboo. I believe that ignoring those with mental health issues has put a burden on families and societies who try to help those with ailments without proper medical resources,” Chasen Washington, an undecided freshman, said. “People deserve to have their problems addressed.”
At the panel, Kennedy, Langinger and Wu gave personal testimonies of their own struggles dealing with various mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and depression. Kennedy also spoke about how the Mental Health Parity and Addition Equity Act was the first step in healthcare reform that America needed.
“That’s our healthcare [system] today, it’s sick care not health care,” he said.
According to Kennedy, society as a whole needs to address the broader attitudinal barriers toward mental illnesses.
“[Society] treats [them] as moral issues not medical issues, character issues not chemical issues … we need to begin to end the discrimination,” he said.
Langinger, a third-year law student at USC, told his story of dealing with bipolar disorder while attending University of California, Berkeley. He spoke of the various phases of bipolar disorder, and how he eventually developed psychosis. Laginger said that the community around him essentially saw him as “another Berkeley hippie” and that it wasn’t until he flew back home for no apparent reason that his mental illness came to light.
Michelle Wu, a psychiatry resident at USC, also shared her story of dealing with depression while she was a student at Northwestern University. Wu spoke of how she went days without showering.
“I went from the star of the school to barely scraping by,” Wu said. “I [would wake up] and be disappointed that I didn’t die during the night.”
She was eventually diagnosed with depression after going to a psychiatrist, and is now healthy.
Many students spoke about having people close to them who were affected by mental illnesses.
“The number of people I know who are affected by depression is definitely higher than it should be and watching them go through it is a painful process. Reform would be greatly appreciated,” Lucia Lin, a freshman majoring in East Asian languages and cultures, said.
The testimonies of Wu and Langinger encouraged many students in the audience to share their own personal stories about battling various mental illnesses at the panel.
Kennedy’s speech was well received by attendees, many of whom indicated their approval on the topic with several loud, lengthy applause breaks. Some audience members voiced their thanks to Kennedy for being an advocate of mental illnesses.
“Most people disregard mental illness as an actual disease and treat the inflicted people as anomalies instead of patients to be treated,” Jessie Guo, a freshman majoring in biochemistry, said. “The healthcare for mental illnesses is often quite shoddy and needs to be improved. I’m glad Patrick Kennedy, a politician, addressed the issue.”
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