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How politicians talk about their mental health

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last week, his office disclosed that Senator John Fetterman had checked himself into the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to receive treatment for clinical depression. Last year, the Pennsylvania Democrat suffered a stroke during his campaign, and he's been dealing with side effects from it ever since. Being transparent about physical health problems is one thing, but mental health struggles used to be the third rail, the big unmentionable for public officials. But in the last few days, other members of Congress, both men and women, have come forward to acknowledge that they, too, have lived with and sought treatment for similar challenges, from PTSD to depression and anxiety, which led us to wonder, does this moment signal a shift in how politicians talk about their mental health and, by extension, maybe others?

We thought we'd ask a former member of Congress, Patrick J. Kennedy, a Democrat who represented Rhode Island in the House, and he's also the son of the late longtime Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Patrick Kennedy was an early practitioner of openness about struggles with mental health. Back in the 2000s, he told voters about having been treated for depression and substance abuse. And he's with us now. Congressman Kennedy, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

PATRICK J KENNEDY: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: So when you saw that Senator Fetterman had checked himself in for depression treatment, I was just wondering what your initial thoughts were.

KENNEDY: No one willingly chooses to have a mental illness, nor do they choose to have addiction. I mean, I and my family, who have also suffered from addiction, if we had been able to choose a different life where we wouldn't have been shamed because of our struggles, there's no question in my mind many of my family members - my mom, who suffered from really debilitating alcoholism - would have chosen early on not to ever drink again. But these are illustrative of the fact that people don't have choice when they're in the middle and in the grip of a brain illness.

MARTIN: Do you remember what the conversations were like and how you arrived at the decision to share with the public about your struggles with bipolar disorder and substance abuse disorder?

KENNEDY: Yeah, sure. So I'm no profile in courage. I didn't do this because I wanted a big conversation to take place, unlike what I think Senator Fetterman is doing by the nature of his announcement. In my case, I was outed as having been in drug treatment by someone who was in drug treatment with me and who sold their story to the National Enquirer that they had been in treatment with me, putting me on the front page of the National Enquirer. I ended up surviving that. This was back in '91, so that was a big deal to survive an accusation of drug use. At the time, my constituency in Rhode Island were more upset that someone ratted on me than they were that I was a drug addict.

MARTIN: Do you think that there is still, though, is a different standard for politicians, for elected officials, than there are for other people in the public eye around this issue? Because a lot of people have become more open about mental health issues. I mean, I think - and I can think of any number of, you know, actors. I think - and, you know, journalists, like the famous, you know, Mike Wallace. But I do wonder if you think that there's still a different standard for public officials when it comes to this kind of health issue.

KENNEDY: It was a strange phenomenon. My staff told me, don't talk about it. They already know, Patrick. And yet it was the elephant in the room. So when I would go to a community center, you know, I'd first start by saying, thank you all for the get well cards while I was in rehab. And of course, none of them sent me get well cards, but they didn't know that. And so they all thought that they were the odd man out for not having thought about that. And that kind of put them on the defensive. And actually, at the end of the events, it was, like, a line out the door. And everybody asked me, when they spoke to me, to go off to the side. They didn't want anyone else to overhear their own stories being told.

MARTIN: Interesting. Did anybody ever throw it in your face?

KENNEDY: So, yeah, I mean, I definitely got tons of negative. And my experience is that every family in America knows this issue in the most personal way. Now, the symptoms of these illnesses make those of us who suffer from them very unattractive and very easy to shun because these symptoms are very antisocial, negative. And that's part of the reason why stigma is so strong is that we all have family members who we also want to avoid because they have one of these illnesses.

So the real challenge for us is, how do we understand these illnesses, and how do we distinguish between the illness and the person? So I am not my addiction. I am a person with addiction. And Senator Fetterman is a beautiful human being who happens to have a brain illness that can be treated, by the way. He is a great man. You know, whether you agree with his politics or not, anyone who is willing to serve as he is, especially in this environment, needs to be given all of the benefit of the doubt.

MARTIN: You're not in elective office anymore, but you are now - you are still a mental health advocate. It's my understanding that you've created some resources for members or people who work in Congress. Do you have some - if you feel comfortable saying this - some advice for Senator Fetterman, like what he should do when he concludes his treatment - his in-hospital treatment? Do you have thoughts about that?

KENNEDY: Well, there were a group of us on Capitol Hill when I was in Congress that used to gather, all of whom had this challenge. And there was a certain protective circle because it wasn't as if any of us were outing the other because we were all in it together. So if I were him, I would pick what we call closed-mouth friends. And those are best found amongst those who have a similar lived experience. And I will tell you that reduced the anxiety and isolation that I always had in politics. And it changed the whole nature of my relationship with my constituents as it did my relationship with my colleagues in Congress.

MARTIN: That's former congressman and now mental health advocate Patrick Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy, thanks so much for joining us today and sharing your memories and your thoughts with us today.

KENNEDY: My pleasure. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.