“The best way to treat mental illness is to prevent it,” says Patrick Kennedy at launch of the Kennedy Forum Illinois

Leventhal+Kennedy+Cochran+ChoucairA full day of events in Chicago last month formally launched the Kennedy Forum Illinois, bringing together elected officials, civic and philanthropic leaders, educators, mental health experts, researchers and advocates—all focused on how to improve mental health statewide. A major concern was reducing childhood adversity and trauma, an especially daunting challenge in Chicago, where high levels of gun violence persist.

Peter O'BrienThe force behind the Kennedy Forum Illinois is Chicago business leader Peter O’Brien who lost a son to mental illness and who, along with is wife, Mimi, has tried to channel the family’s grief by helping others with mental illness and their families.  O’Brien told the story of how “he found my guy” when he heard former U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy speak openly about this struggles with mental illness and addiction in a TV interview with Katie Couric. He reached out to his friend Chris Kennedy, who is Patrick Kennedy’s cousin and the son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, to make the introduction. (Patrick Kennedy is the son of U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy.) The O’Briens believe that the stigma associated with mental illnesses keeps individuals from entering treatment early on and thereby making recovery difficult or unsuccessful, as it was for their son.

The formation of the Kennedy Forum Illinois was inspired by the Kennedy Forum, created by Patrick Kennedy to integrate mental health into healthcare in part through the full implementation of the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act of 2008. A little over a year ago in Boston, the Kennedy Forum held a major event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s signing of the Community Mental Health Act. Since then, the Kennedy Forum has brought together leaders from business, academia, and philanthropy to develop strategies and forge alliances to bring mental health fully into health care.

During the morning event, sponsored by City Club of Chicago, Kennedy recited the words of President Kennedy at the signing of the Community Mental Health Act in 1963:  “The mentally ill…need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.” He commented on what these words meant to him—people with mental illnesses should not experience stigma, prejudice or ill will, and the community (not institutions) is the source of help. Kennedy said there is a new frontier in health care that is to include community supports such as supportive housing and employment that have a great return in reducing healthcare costs. He said the challenge is how to pay for it, enlisting “the brains and energy” in the room in finding the way.

Whitaker+Satcher+CochranIn remarks to the breakfast crowd — that included City Council Aldermen from districts around the city; Dr. Eric Whitaker, friend of President Obama and former head of the Illinois Department of Public Health; and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke — Kennedy also focused on prevention: “The best way to treat mental illness is to prevent it, and we do not have a prevention strategy in this country. Some mental illness is the result of people simply growing up in toxic environments where their brains are inalterably affected by the stress and trauma of growing up…” especially in cities plagued with violence such as Chicago.

Kennedy talked about the irreparable damage caused by the gunshot murders of his uncles on his entire family­—his father and mother, aunts and uncles and cousins—and said “to think that violence hasn’t had a similar effect on families in Chicago who have witnessed these terrible murders is to ignore the fact that these instances have a ripple effect that is so damaging on the whole community and that it will manifest itself in all kinds of mental illness and addictive disorders in the future for these young people who have been affected by this violence. The challenge for the city and for the panel today is how do we intercede and help those families who have been impacted by this violence…”

A panel discussion on children’s mental health was led by Eileen Durkin, CEO of Community Counseling Centers of Chicago, included Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. Surgeon General, Satcher Health Leadership Institute, Morehouse School of Medicine; Dr. Bennett L. Leventhal, professor of psychiatry at Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, UCSF; Dr. Bechara Choucair, a family physician and commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health; Willie Cochran, a former police officer who has served on the Chicago City Council since 2007 (Click here for bios).

Here are a few highlights on the session:

Dr. Satcher

  • Satcher described three dimensions of stigma—individual, family and community, and policy level. He evoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., in addressing communication that must educate, motivate, and mobilize. In his remarks on trauma and prevention, he talked about the impact in utero of toxins, nutrition and violence, saying the impact begins in the lives of parents before conception. He pointed to “quality parenting” as the buffer for community stressors.
  • Choucair addressed how community violence is part of the trauma experienced by children in urban areas around the country, and how parents as well as kids need support to survive. He described three programs that feature prevention: a program supported by funding from the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation to embed behavioral health screening in primary care; pending budget approval by the City Council a program to provide treatment to sexual assault victims; and restorative practice in elementary schools to give parents, teachers and students the tools they need to resolve conflict, also pending budget approval.
  • Leventhal noted the prevalence of mental illness (50 percent of all people will experience a psychiatric disorder in their lifetimes but less than 25 percent will get treatment), and how we know what to do to prevent illness and intervene early, but we lack the will to take these actions. He addressed the role of ACEs in increasing the risk of psychiatric and medical illnesses and the importance of environmental factors’ impact on gene expression. He said extreme violence is rare but other factors such as abusive parenting, poor teaching, and bullying increase illness, psychiatric and medical. Good nutrition, kindness, and good parenting are natural supports that mitigate the impact of ACEs.
  • Cochran emphasized the importance of including mental health assessments in primary care settings and involving parents in their children’s overall health care.

The need to embed mental health seamlessly into health care was echoed by Kennedy later in the session. Others commented that it was outrageous to have a waiting list for treatment for victims of sexual assault, something that would not be tolerated for cancer, for example. Each person who attended the morning meeting received an “ACE Awareness for Prevention” brochure prepared by the Community Counseling Centers of Chicago.ACE Awareness brochure

The afternoon sessions featured presentations on making the business case for including mental health and addiction services in overall health, the future of mental health services in the Illinois public mental health system, issues related to parity implementation.

At the dinner event, Mariel Hemingway spoke about her family’s history of suicide and depression, including the suicide of her grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, and her quest for health in response to her difficult childhood. A documentary and book, “Running from Crazy,” chronicles her journey.

Brandon Marshall, wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, spoke about his treatment for borderline personality disorder and how he and his wife have found hope and inspiration by devoting time and energy to increasing public awareness of mental illness and the potential for recovery. Both Marshall and Kennedy commented how aware they are and how much they appreciate the advantages they have in gaining treatment for their illnesses and waging their public fight for better mental health treatment and prevention strategies.

The Forum drew notable figures such as Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Lt. Governor-Elect Evelyn Sanguinetti, who spoke about suicide in her Cuban-born family, and over 700 others, including many with personal or family histories of mental illness and addiction. One theme of the conference was to bring personal stories to light, and the Kennedy Forum website provides the opportunity to do just that. The Kennedy Forum is developing a story bank about overcoming stigma, exposing coverage denials and obtaining services now that parity is the law of the land, “to learn from each other and find solutions to overcome our common challenges.”

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