Patrick Kennedy: My brave cousin Saoirse was open about mental illness. Everyone should be.



Patrick J. Kennedy , Opinion contributor Published 1:55 p.m. ET Aug. 8, 2019 | Updated 3:14 p.m. ET Aug. 8, 2019

Saoirse wanted everyone to know that the Kennedy family is not cursed. It’s just big, with an unsurprising incidence of mental illness and addiction.

We are all grieving the loss of my spirited, introspective, beautiful cousin Saoirse Kennedy Hill. She died too soon, at the age of 22, but we are left with her brave words and spirit. She was open about her struggles with mental illness even as a teenager —imploring the faculty and students at her school to learn how to tell the truth about these illnesses and the impact on their lives, because silence “leaves people feeling even more alone.”

To prove her point, in a school newspaper story Saoirse shared that she had been treated for depression and hospitalized after a suicide attempt. She didn’t do this for shock value, but rather to openly tell her story in the hope it would help others do the same. We were all so proud of her.

“No one seems to know how to talk about mental illness,” she wrote. And Saoirse knew all too well that in the rare moments when she and others tried to talk about it, they got reactions that made them fearful of being open again.

“If someone confides in you, try not to say, ‘It’s all in your mind,’ or ‘Lighten up,’ or, my personal favorite, ‘Happiness is a choice.’ No, it’s really not,” she explained. “When I’m in a really bad place, I do my best to surround myself with positive people and upbeat music, but too often it feels as if I’m drowning in my own thoughts, while everyone else seems to be breathing comfortably.”

Kennedy family is painfully typical

It was only an hour or two after her death was announced that I started seeing stories about how this is the “Kennedy curse.” That offends me, and it would have offended Saoirse. 

What she knew, and what she wanted everyone else to know, is that the Kennedy family is, in many ways, painfully typical. We have an unsurprising incidence of mental illness and addiction — our illnesses are no different than anyone else’s and our tragic losses to them have not been so out of the ordinary.

We have a big family. A lot of kids had a lot more kids. But mostly we are a more public family than most, under the eye of the media. Consequently, we are less able to hide these struggles than others.

When will we get parity? Insurance system still discriminates against mental illness. Time to fight back.

Honestly, that’s a good thing. Hiding these struggles does not work; too many people live in isolated shame and even die, untreated or unsupported in treatment, because of it. Saoirse came to understand that much earlier in life than I did. And since it is her generation that is at the highest risk for these illnesses, and the premature death they can cause, Saoirse was my hero for putting herself and her story out there. And she did it her own way — she called people out.

Struggling to find answers

Saoirse wanted to be part of the first generation to grow up truly confronting the discrimination against these illnesses. “I have experienced a lot of stigma surrounding mental health,” she admitted, but “as students, we have the power to end that immediately.”

Saoirse also wanted to make sure that mental illnesses got the same attention and respect — in treatment, in research dollars, in public empathy — as diseases of the other organs of the body. “People talk about cancer freely; why is it so difficult to discuss the effects of depression, bipolar, anxiety, or schizophrenic disorders?” she wanted to know.

She was asking the right questions. She was trying so hard to find answers.

“We are all either struggling or know someone who is battling an illness,” Saoirse wrote. “Let’s come together to make our community more inclusive and comfortable.”

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I am proud Saoirse was able to be open. And I know her message will outlive her.  

We can all take a lesson from Saoirse. Feel what she felt. Do whatever you can from your position in life to stop the isolation, the discrimination and the devastating lack of acknowledgment that too often lead to tragedy. Families across the nation are suffering and losing loved ones every day — not just the Kennedys. 

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of The Kennedy Forum, was lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 and served on the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. He is co-author, with Stephen Fried, of A “Common Struggle: A Personal Journey through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.” Follow him on Twitter: @PJK4brainhealth

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