Patrick Kennedy Tackles Mental Health Stigma In New Book

Written by Tom Chiodo Contributor Developing documentaries & special projects for public media.


Jun 13, 2024 Forbes

Patrick Kennedy appears on PBS Newshour, May 5, 2024. Photo: PBS

After four years of the Covid-19 pandemic, stories about the mental health crisis in the United States continue to emerge daily. According to the CDC, more than 1 in 5 US adults live with a mental illness. Levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other mental disorders continue to rise among people of all ages, particularly among youth, causing growing concern about solutions, and a path forward. In 2021, more than 4 in 10 (42%) high school students felt persistently sad or hopeless, nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health, and more than 1 in 5 (22%) seriously considered attempting suicide.

Keeping the family tradition of fighting the good fight, Patrick J. Kennedy has been working for years to erase the stigma of mental illness while also pushing for effective policy changes. Since his initial book release in 2015, A Common Struggle, Kennedy has been candid about his own struggles with mental health and addiction. Kennedy and his coauthor, award-winning journalist and Columbia University professor, Stephen Fried have recently released a new read, Profiles in Mental Health Courage. The book is filled with personal stories from people of all backgrounds with various mental health struggles. From actors to healthcare aids, each chapter paints a unique portrait of an individual’s lived experience with mental illness. At the same time, Kennedy and Fried strive to make sure that these illnesses are not seen as unusual, but a common struggle that impacts us all.

Kennedy adds, “We wrote Profiles in Mental Health Courage because we thought telling the stories of twelve different people with different mental illnesses and addictions—in-depth in a way that is rarely done—could make a real difference in the epidemic our country is experiencing of these illnesses. We, and those we interviewed, feel very strongly that too many Americans do not really understand what it is like to experience these diseases, or how to support a friend or loved one with them.”

Though Kennedy and Fried orchestrated the book’s creation, their inspiration, appreciation and learning from other individuals is quite noticeable throughout the pages. Simone Bile’s bold step to not participate in the Olympics to prioritize her mental health prompted Kennedy and Fried to analyze the negative reactions and lack of understanding from many Americans about the idea of mental illness. Readers are taken through a plethora of emotions as they see stories about individuals such as Ashley Dunlop, a healthcare aide from Nashville Tennessee, who throughout most of her life, fought with addiction to cocaine, crack, and heroin, relapsing almost beyond count going in and out of treatment centers. It’s understood through Kennedy’s writing that addiction and mental illness go hand in hand and the recovery is not always linear. As Kennedy briefly shares his history of addiction in the book, he also points out that addiction and mental health have been historically dealt with as two different problems when in reality, they should be approached similarly.

Though many of the scenes described seem grim, there is no lack of hope and optimism throughout the book. For example, we hear about Henry Platt, a singer from a high-profile family in entertainment and his journey with depression while attending University of Pennsylvania brings elements of encouragement. It’s revealed to readers that Henry was able to stand up to the school’s president, advocating for more adequate mental health resources for students when, at the time, the university had none, resulting in UPENN creating a Chief Wellness Officer position. This was an effective change at the school, having a medical professional in charge of student and faculty wellness, available during essential hours.

“The work was challenging and exhilarating and sometimes stunningly dark, especially since profile subjects were allowed to withdraw at any time (and several did),” Fried shares candidly. “But the people we were writing about were so uniformly brave, insightful and committed to the process, even when recounting incredibly difficult circumstances and hurt, that mostly all I could be was inspired by them. I hope these stories change other people’s lives the way they have changed ours.”

On the back of the book is a QR code to the Alignment for Progress, an action oriented movement initiated by the Kennedy family using financial incentives to garner mental health support, housing, talk therapy and medication. For anyone suffering from anxiety, depression or any other mental illness, Profiles in Mental Health Courage is a must read and an enlightening one for those who are not. With steps taken in these types of directions, there may be a chance that more Americans will be willing to tell their own story about their mental health journey and perhaps more lives will be saved in the process.

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About the Author

Tom Chiodo

Tom Chiodo Executive producer Special Projects, National Productions at WETA, flagship PBS station in Washington D.C., developing primetime documentary films and original digital content, accompanied by national impact and engagement campaigns, for 330+ PBS stations. Recent projects include Ken Burns presents Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness (2022); Emmy-nominated documentary The Gene: An Intimate History (2020). More than thirty years experience in media, communications, television, and entertainment industry. Senior positions at Entertainment Industry Foundation, Rubenstein Associates, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and Massachusetts Department of Pubic Health.  Co-author “Home Care for Respirator Dependent Children” New England Journal of Medicine. Contributing writer Forbes.com.  2023 judge for National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences News & Documentary Emmy Awards.

The Well Beings Blog supports the critical health and wellbeing of all individuals, to raise awareness, reduce stigma and discrimination, and change the public discourse. The Well Beings campaign was launched in 2020 with the Youth Mental Health Project, followed by the 2022 documentary series Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness (Now streaming on the PBS App), and the upcoming 2025 series, Hiding in Plain SightAdult Mental Illness, produced and directed by Ewers Brothers Productions, executive produced by Ken Burns, and presented by WETA, the PBS flagship station in our nation’s capital.

You are not alone. If you or someone you know is in crisis, whether they are considering suicide or not, please call 988 or the toll-free National Suicide Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor. If you don’t want to talk on the phone, you can also text. Crisis Text Line offers free mental health support. Text “10-18” or “SCRUBS” to 741741 for help. The call and text lines are open 24 hours a day.

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    WellBeings.org is a mental health resource, not a crisis or suicide response website. If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. The service is free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.