Nothing to Hide: Exposing the Stigma of Mental Illness

Maureen MurdockAddiction, Bipolar Illness, Mental Illness3 Comments

Two Sundays ago the New York Times published an interview with Glenn Close and Patrick Kennedy, both of whose lives have been affected by mental health disorders.

Stage and screen actor Glenn Close, whose sister suffers from depression, started a non-profit organization, BringChange2Mind, to confront the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. Patrick Kennedy, the youngest child of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, has publicly acknowledged his own struggles with bipolar illness and addiction to alcohol and other drugs. He represented Rhode Island in Congress for eight terms before retiring from office in 2011, when he founded the Kennedy Forum for equality in the treatment and insurance coverage of mental illness and addiction.

What impressed me the most about the interview was each person’s openness in discussing the emotional cost to their respective families and how necessary it is to highlight how difficult it is for a loved one with a mental illness to receive good treatment. Theses illnesses flourish in silence and healing comes only when awareness is brought to light.

Kennedy was a high-functioning congressman, hiding his illness and addiction until 1991 when the National Enquirer wrote a piece about his being in treatment. Later, in 2006 he was in a car crash at the Capitol and, against the advice of his dad, he admitted that he had been intoxicated. Kennedy attributes his father’s desire to cover it up as his “generational M.O. To shut down, not talk about it.”

But Kennedy wanted to deal with it at once so he admitted his addiction to opiates and the fact that he had received treatment at the Mayo Clinic a few months before. “But,” he added, “I refused to go to the mental health ward there. I thought: ‘That’s where the crazy people go. I can’t afford to have people find out that I’m suffering from the same illnesses that I’m advocating for in Congress.’ That’s how deranged my thinking was.”

He had not yet been diagnosed bipolar. That came later when he went back into treatment and was diagnosed with a mood disorder that runs in his family. His mother suffered tremendously from a mood disorder as well as alcoholism and finally died from it. They never talked about it. His father suffered from PTSD from seeing his brothers violently murdered and again, they never talked about it. The senior Kennedy was molded by his own father’s generation, which said, “If it’s bad for the family, keep it under wraps.”

Even though Kennedy came from a well-known, respected family that was frequently in the public eye, the silence among family members is all too common. One in four people is affected by mental illness and Kennedy wants to know, “Why isn’t everyone talking about it? It’s affecting our families, our friends, everyone.” There is a federal law to end discrimination in the treatment and coverage of mental illness and addiction. But Kennedy says that too few people are willing to come out of the shadows and say they were denied equal coverage. He started the Parity Registry to get people to tell their stories.

“Until we push back against the insurance industry, this discrimination will never end.” He hopes that the veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and came home with PTSD and other invisible wounds of war are going to make mental illness their issue. Our society is living in denial when so many people are dying from suicide and overdoses.

Glenn Close says that her profession has perpetuated the stigma about mental illness by portraying those with a mental illness as dangerous or violent and she is committed to changing the prejudice. Her organization Bring Change2Mind is working to break the stigma of mental illness and acknowledge that mental illness is a real illness—no different from lung cancer or heart disease.

3 Comments on “Nothing to Hide: Exposing the Stigma of Mental Illness”

  1. The stigma continues to lead to disastrous misdiagnosis and insurance industry uncertainty around mental health because people choose primary care as a pharmacological way to deal with psychological problems. In the face of losing coverage for mental health it is an important dialogue, and those who have a voice in the media should continue to use it.

  2. Very informative, Maureen. Interesting that the Kennedy family did not talk about these issues amongst themselves, but the gossip tabloids frequently brought those issues to the public, like Patrick’s mother’s alcoholism. I suppose they may have felt that to talk about it within the family would only validate the stigma of “scandal” that the tabloids traded on. Unfortunately, the more effective way to de-stigmatize something like that is to be open about it within the family and, if you are a public persona family like the Kennedys, be open about it with the press. It takes courage, but that’s the best way to destroy rumors and speculation of something worse.

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