It is a medical issue, not a moral issue, and not a character flaw… Patrick F. Kennedy

A Common Struggle. Patrick F. Kennedy and Stephen Fried. New York: Blue Rider Press. 432 pages.

New York Times Bestseller List #4 Nonfiction Hardcover

“Our secrets are our most formidable adversaries. The older I get, the more I see secrecy as “the enemy within, “which blocks recovery not only for individuals but for society itself.”

The Kennedy family has suffered tragedy after tragedy and some suggest the family is cursed. Patrick Kennedy is a former member of the House of Representatives from Rhode Island and son of the late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Patrick was one of the first Kennedy’s to expose his mental illness and substance addiction. Although the Kennedy family was very public it also tried to keep the family tragedies behind the walls of the family compounds and used a cooperative medical system to hide the treatment of family members’ addictions to drugs and alcohol, and suffering from mental illness. Over time, Patrick came to realize that the tabloids and tell-all books had made the secrets public regardless of how much the family attempted to protect their privacy

“…I grew up with a lot of tensions and unprocessed trauma. And while I felt judged and stared at, the truth was I was capable of being as judgmental and unsympathetic as everyone else.” I saw my Mom’s alcoholism through the lens of my father’s old school attitude…”

Patrick painfully exposes his addiction and mental health issues. He dates these back to his early teen years, including issues with his father and mother. Joan, his mother, was the first Kennedy to discuss her alcohol addiction in a Good Housekeeping magazine cover story. Ted, however, had done his best to keep Joan’s treatment hidden while completely ignoring his own problems. Patrick argues that his father was able to function with his illness more so than his mother.

“My father would have been President of the United States if there had been progressive mental health treatment for him — someone saying, “Since two of your brothers were shot and killed, maybe you need to get support and service because you suffered trauma.”

From reading Patrick’s description of his home life, especially about his father, it is doubtful that Ted would have accepted treatment even if it had been offered. As a senator, Ted had the means to look for a treatment and pay for it. This would be especially true after Mary Jo Kopechne, a young staffer was killed when Ted drove his car off a rickety bridge after a party on Martha’s Vineyard he claimed that he was not driving under the influence of alcohol. Ted left the scene after he tried several times to rescue her and did not report the accident until ten hours later. It is hard to imagine that a sane person would not have sought professional help. Today it most likely would have been court ordered! He received a two-month suspended sentence.

More important than the family’s struggles are the chapters in the book where Kennedy devotes his work in Congress to change federal health insurance laws: Provide federal funding for addiction and mental health research. After leaving Congress, he has worked in the private sector to further his and other’s work. Political battles on the floor of Congress over trivial issues like naming a bill shows the underlying problem in the legislative branch.

It was surprising to me as I read the book to see the connection, which Patrick made after 9/11, between service members returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq with the “invisible wounds” of PTSD.

“Our ideas about post-traumatic stress disorders were completely challenged…also; mental healthcare suddenly became a much bigger defense issue. It was the first time most Americans really understood how terrorism could be a psychological weapon of war…”

Patrick, while still fighting his own mental health problems, began to work on veterans’ issues including the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act and to increase funding for the Veterans Administration mental health services. However, because many veterans return to work and are covered by civilian employer health plans the need for mental health parity was critical for their care.

“Fatal experience has taught the people of America that a greater proportion of men have perished with sickness in armies than have fallen by the sword.” Dr. Benjamin Rush writing in the nation’s first medical textbook on war medicine.

Often the funding of a military program will have secondary effects for similar civilian programs and the new interest in military suicide prevention could lead to better understand, diagnoses and treat “all Americans attempting to take their own lives.”

After leaving Congress, Patrick has continued to support mental health issues by forming The Kennedy Forum and One Mind; a non-profit organization led by retired Army General Pete Chiarelli who, as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, oversaw the Army’s response to TBI and PTSD in returning service members. One Mind continues Chiarelli’s efforts started on active duty that concentrated on the growing number of traumatic brain injuries and mental health among the military and veterans.

The book will be a hit for its scandalous tales of the family that for so long carried America’s fantasy of Camelot. However, it provides a window into the world of alcohol abuse, prescription drug abuse, and mental health issues. The literary worth of this book will be decided on the story Patrick tells of his battle with all three. It is certain that whatever the U.S. and the world try to do in the area of mental health and addiction will be better based on the one simple but true equation of political science:

“We are stronger together than we are divided!

Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy with over thirty years of service. He serves as an Ambassador for the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America and regularly reviews books on veterans issues including PTSD. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015 and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader.

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