Patrick J. Kennedy on the Role Business Should Play in Responding to America’s Mental Health Crisis


Patrick J. Kennedy, former U.S. Representative and founder of The Kennedy Forum is one of the world’s leading voices on mental health and addiction. Working to unite government leaders, philanthropists, the private sector, and advocates, he is arguably one of the most effective global changemakers helping to shift stigma around mental health and encourage healthcare systems to treat illness of the brain on par with illnesses of the body.

Patrick J. Kennedy will be a keynote speaker, alongside Mental Health America’s CEO and President, Paul Gionfriddo, at Make a Difference (digital) Summit in association with Mind Share Partners on October 15th.

In this profile interview, we get get insight into the effectiveness and depth of Kennedy’s influential work as a mental health advocate. The former U.S. Congressman shares his views on employer responsibility when it comes to American workers having access to mental health care, what COVID-19 can teach the business community about mental health and how he makes mental health support a priority amongst his own team.

In recent years, mainstream awareness around mental health as a major, growing social issue has been increasing in the U.S. at a faster rate than ever before. What would you say this is attributed to?

Heightened awareness can be attributed to successful campaigns run by dedicated advocates, as well as celebrities and other public figures opening up about their struggles in the media. All of this is actively normalizing the conversation around mental health, which leads to more and more people who feel comfortable sharing their own stories. It’s really great to see.

As this happens, I also think people are getting fed up that they can’t seem to access mental health care easily. They’ve started to ask questions and demand answers. I’ve always said it’s a civil rights issue. The movement is most certainly gaining momentum.

What role do you think the business community should play in these changing times in which mental health is becoming a rising mainstream social issue and reaching crisis level in the U.S. and globally?

Implementing supportive programs within a workforce or staff is of course essential, but from my perspective employers have a much bigger role to play. As major purchasers of health care, they have a lot of power to advance parity, which refers to mental health being treated ‘on par’ with physical health.

Under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which I co-authored during my time in Congress, most insurers are required to cover treatment for mental health and substance use disorders no more restrictively than treatment for illnesses of the body, such as diabetes and cancer. However, due to a lack of enforcement and other issues, many insurers are not in compliance. States are currently enacting their own laws to bolster the Federal Parity Act, but at the end of the day, the people buying the health plans have the right to demand answers about how those plans are addressing parity. After all, investing in mental health helps control overall health care costs.

A recent analysis by Milliman confirms that people with behavioral and physical health conditions drive up total health care costs; however, spending on behavioral health treatment is only a small portion of total health care spending. Of the 21 million people studied, 27% had a behavioral health condition. These individuals made up 56% of total health care costs and their expenses were 2.8 to 6.2 times higher than those of people without a behavioral health condition.

These numbers should be alarming to everyone, but they should definitely serve as a red flag to employers that they have to get serious about ensuring their employees have better access to mental health and addiction care. It’s in everyone’s best interest.

What is the most impactful approach to addressing mental health within a business that you’ve come across in your work as a mental health advocate which you think other employers could learn from?

In terms of timely initiatives that address the new normal we’re all living in, I’ve been really impressed by a program from Psych Hub, One Mind at Work, and the SHRM Foundation called “Mental Health and Wellness in the Workplace.” It’s designed to engage HR professionals in education and training opportunities that will promote a culture of acceptance around returning to work and the rising mental health challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies get their own workplace wellness resource center, housed on Psych Hub’s website, compiling very helpful resources from each partner. Training courses for HR professionals address mental health issues in a modern workplace. It’s all about empowerment and taking a proactive approach—I think that’s going to make a world of difference.

I’m also really excited to see more and more companies embracing the use of technology in addressing mental health and addiction. For example, The Hartford just partnered with Pear Therapeutics to support its employees and their families with benefit coverage of prescription digital therapeutics for substance use disorders under its health plan. To me, this sends an important message—we’re going to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Amongst your staff at the Kennedy Forum, are there any examples you’d like to share of practices you have in place to ensure your team’s mental health is supported?

We’re a very small virtual team, so we don’t have the HR infrastructure of a large organization, but one small yet powerful thing we always try to do is prioritize is open dialogue. I talk freely about attending my twelve step meetings in an effort to normalize the conversation, and I encourage The Kennedy Forum team to talk freely about their own challenges, supports, or treatment if they feel comfortable.

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We try to make it very clear that taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. If you need to attend a mental health appointment during work hours, go for it. There’s no difference in our eyes. I want that to be very clear.

What do you think COVID-19 can teach/is teaching the business community about mental health?

I think for a long time it was easy for people to sort of brush mental health under the rug and just pretend it didn’t matter. But now, there’s so much data showing how much people are struggling—it’s hard for anyone to ignore:

  • Recent Morbidity and Mortality data from the CDC showed that 41% of respondents faced mental health challenges related to COVID-19 and as many as one in four young people ages 18-24 seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.
  • After a record high of 72,000 overdose deaths in 2019, preliminary data for 2020 shows a national increase of 15 percent between May and August, with certain states/municipalities reporting steeper increases. Over 35 states have reported a rise in fatal overdoses.
  • From February to July, more than a quarter million people screened positive for depression and/or anxiety through Mental Health America’s screening program.

COVID-19 is teaching the business community that health care absolutely has to encompass mental health. It’s not something that just happens to other people. We are all vulnerable and we all deserve support when we need it—whether that’s due to existing mental health or substance use disorders or new challenges brought on by a global pandemic, it doesn’t matter. Whole person care is the only way to promote true health and well-being.

What do you think COVID-19 is teaching us (citizens of the world) about mental health?

We’re currently learning a very important lesson about human vulnerability and connectedness. And we need to address that with action.

We must hold our leaders accountable for better integration of our of health care system, which means treating the brain alongside the body; better incentives and reimbursements for our mental health addiction provider workforce; and better prevention and early intervention efforts like social-emotional learning in schools and screenings for trauma—particularly trauma that stems from adverse childhood experiences.

If we continue to wait until ‘stage four’ to address mental health, there will be even greater human cost. Reduced productivity, unnecessary disability and unemployment, avoidable incarceration, homelessness, and early death—these are all consequences of inaction.

Now, more than ever, we can clearly see the need for mental health equity on a global scale. We can’t let this opportunity to change pass us by.

World Mental Health day is coming up on October 10th, what is the one thing you’d recommend people can do to raise awareness/make a difference around mental health on 10/10?

Share your story. Do your part to normalize the conversation around mental health and addiction. I guarantee you will inspire others to do the same—it’s something universal that connects us all. And if/when you’re ready, take that openness to the next level: become an advocate. Connect with organizations in your area who are actively working to increase access to care and advance prevention strategies. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a great place to start in the U.S.

Thanks for this opportunity to talk about mental health with Make a Difference News. I’m grateful to be part of this and I’m very much looking forward to the Summit.




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