Kennedy pushes the fight for parity on mental health
Rhode Islanders at a packed State House hearing last week got a close-up look at how US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy is managing his very public struggle with addiction and mental illness.
It’s a high-wire act, and not just because of the sour news that accompanied the 39-year-old congressman’s car crash near the US Capitol last May, and his subsequent guilty plea to driving under the influence of prescription drugs.
Kennedy has also made himself Exhibit A in his campaign to win equal treatment for Americans with mental and addiction disorders, to put them on par with less-stigmatized disorders like cancer and diabetes.
One question hovering over Kennedy is how he’ll do all of this under intense scrutiny, given that coping with chronic conditions such as addiction carries a chance of relapse and doesn’t always go according to script. One clue may be the role played by a man who seems Kennedy’s polar opposite: a 60-year-old Republican congressman from Minnesota, Jim Ramstad.
A co-sponsor of Kennedy’s mental health parity bill, Ramstad played an active part in the January 16 hearing, reinforcing points made by Kennedy — who is very sure-footed on the topic — and adding fresh information. But Ramstad’s role extends beyond bipartisanship. A recovering alcoholic, the Minnesota lawmaker is Kennedy’s sponsor in the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that are part of the younger man’s court-approved recovery plan.
While the New York Times and the Providence Journal have written about the unusual tie between a Republican and Democrat, the hearing showed just how deep their relationship has become. And it offered a rare glimpse into how recovering addicts support one another.
Kennedy introduced Ramstad as “a mentor to me and a great influence on me.”
Ramstad spoke easily of his own recovery, beginning 25 years ago, when, as a first-term Minnesota state senator, he landed in jail — and on the front page of a newspaper — following a coffee shop disturbance.
But for that arrest and the recovery it launched, Ramstad said he’d be dead by now. And he said Kennedy’s acknowledgement of his own problems is helping others. Says Ramstad, “Patrick’s been an inspiration to thousands and thousands — may¬be millions — of people across this nation.”
The GOP congressman went so far to say that had President John F. Kennedy not been assassinated, he might have added a chapter to his book, Profiles in Courage, in tribute to his nephew, Patrick Kennedy.
Asked if his own career had been harmed by alcoholism disclosures, Ramstad recalled an incident at a Minnesota luncheon just after he’d finished his treatment program.
He recalled being accosted by a burly trucker, who berated him for being everything he disliked: a lawyer, a politician and worst of all, a Republican. But then, with “arms bigger than most trees,” the trucker hugged Ramstad, saying: “Brother, welcome to the program. You are one of us. Let’s go to a meeting together.”
Ramstad says he still gets chills retelling that moment. “I’m just so grateful to people like that, across this country, who embrace others who are suffering,” he says. “And that’s how we recover.”
: This Just In
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