Elizabeth, NJ – If anyone can speak with authentic candor to a ballroom full of people about behavioral health and addiction, and make them simultaneously laugh out loud and nod in empathy, it’s Patrick J. Kennedy II, the former U.S. Congressman, mental health advocate and author of the New York Times Bestselling book titled A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction (Blue Rider Press, New York, 2016). 

The Trinitas Health Foundation recently presented an informative evening on "Easing the Stigma about Behavioral Health" with Kennedy and Journalist Jack Ford at The Park Savoy Estate in Florham Park. 

The event launched the Trinitas Health Foundation’s Peace of Mind Campaign and raised $235,000 toward the $4 million renovation project to update Trinitas’ Behavioral Health facility, one of the most comprehensive departments of behavioral health and psychiatry in New Jersey. 

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They offer specialized services for adults, children, and their families, as well as services for those with various addictions, and a 98-bed inpatient facility. The hospital welcomes nearly 200,000 behavioral health visits per year. The multi-disciplinary and bi-lingual staff includes psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, creative arts therapists, substance abuse counselors, and mental health workers, offering such services as psychiatric, emergency response/screening center, inpatient, outpatient, partial hospital programs and addiction services. An individualized course of treatment is recommended after the special circumstances of the patient are carefully evaluated.

As a child, Kennedy could have easily been treated in such a facility. He was diagnosed with asthma early on and went on to suffer through a lifetime of issues such as depression, bipolar disorder and substance addiction, which included many failed attempts at sobriety until he succeeded and learned to manage with the right medication. 

While he didn’t premeditate a life of mental health and addiction advocacy, Kennedy also believes he has been “incredibly blessed,” he said. “Everything I was exposed to in life kind of set me up for this. If I look back on my life now, I could never have orchestrated the way it turned out, in a better way for me. My Aunt Eunice started Special Olympics with my grandmother. My family was steeped especially in the Disability Rights Movement, my father worked on the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was very sensitized to people who were treated as ‘the other,’ particularly if they had a brain illness of some kind.”

Kennedy’s efforts to create stronger advocacy for all types of mental health, have manifested in, among other things, lead sponsorship of the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act of 2008, as well as the creation of two nonprofit organizations---The Kennedy Forum and One Mind, which aim to provide and encourage leadership to band groups together that would normally compete for research dollars and support in other forms. 

Progress has been made, but Kennedy says there is much more that needs to be done in terms of acceptance that brain illnesses should be treated with the same level of concern and respect as diseases like diabetes, cancer, or anything else. “I don’t think we’re going to be in a place in the next couple years that stigma is in the rearview mirror, that we can march forward and have the advocacy we need. … Who among us wants to be saddled with the label that we’re not in full possession of our full mental faculties? That, my friends, is why there’s stigma.”

As exhibited on ParityTrack.org, a collaborative forum designed to be the central site for mental health and substance use disorder parity information, Kennedy said, “In New Jersey, we have big gaps in access to care when you compare behavioral health to med/surg. …This is a real opportunity now; this has to happen. Physical health costs actually go down the more money you spend on mental health. The economists all say that this justifies itself. We never ask to justify our spending on cancer. Somehow we’re supposed to justify the dollars that go into treatment.”

Kennedy also offered that anyone who feels he or she has been wrongfully denied care can visit Parity registry.org to file a complaint.

“We are so fortunate to have had one of the most notable brain health advocates of our time share his personal story at our fundraising event to both help our cause and further his message,” says Gary S. Horan, FACHE, President and CEO of Trinitas Regional Medical Center. “The reality of renovating the physical Behavioral Health facility to reflect the stellar care we offer is coming into view, and we are looking forward to making that happen as soon as possible. Our goal is to create a more aesthetically pleasing environment for both the adult and adolescent patients. They deserve it.”

So far, a total of $1.2 million has been raised toward the campaign.