Politician, author and mental health advocate Patrick Joseph Kennedy II will be speaking at the College of Charleston at 10 a.m. on Oct. 11, 2017, about mental health care in the United States and the critical fight against separate and unequal treatment of mental illness, addiction and other brain diseases.

As a member of one of the nation’s best-known political families, the former congressman is a leading voice for the growing movement for transformative change in mental health care parity. During his 16 years serving Rhode Island’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, he fought to end discrimination against mental illness, addiction and brain diseases – and was a lead sponsor of the landmark Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which not only provides mental health treatment to tens of millions of Americans, but also combats the shame surrounding mental illness and addiction.

Another one of Kennedy’s greatest achievements is sharing his own experience with mental health recovery in The New York Times‘ best-seller, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction, in which he provides a blueprint for transforming our nation’s mental health system.

His talk, “My Journey: Making Mental Health Essential Health,” is free and open to the public and will take place in the Stern Center Ballroom located at 71 George St. It is co-hosted by the College ‘s Collegiate Recovery Program and Counseling and Substance Abuse Services.

RELATED: The Collegiate Recovery Program’s meetings are open to all students interested in finding out more.

“The Collegiate Recovery Program is honored to welcome Patrick Kennedy to campus, as he is one of the nation’s leading advocates for making addiction treatment more accessible to those who need help,” says Wood Marchant ’89, director of the program, which supports students in recovery from addiction as they pursue their degrees. “His work supporting those with mental illness is inspiring, and we look forward to hearing how his own recovery helped him help others.”

To get a preview of his talk, The College Today posed a few questions to Kennedy about the state of mental health care in America.

How do you hope that talking about your own mental health journey can change our nation’s perception of/attitude toward mental health care?

If we can’t acknowledge mental illness and addiction in our personal lives and our family lives, how in the world are we going to acknowledge it as a society? Change begins with the individual. I decided to break the cycle of silence in my family and stand firm in my truth. My hope is that others may be inspired to do the same.

How does the next generation have it easier when it comes to mental health? 

There’s no doubt we have made progress in addressing the stigma surrounding mental health. Organizations such as Mental Health America, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Council for Behavioral Health have done such an amazing job promoting awareness and understanding. The next generation will certainly benefit from that. And the advances we are starting to see in terms of treatment for mental illnesses and addiction are really promising. I’m not just talking about medication. I’m specifically referring to telemedicine platforms that can reach more people in more ways and collaborative care models that address the body and the mind together.

How does that generation have it harder?

What I worry about for the next generation is disconnectedness. It’s a real problem in our society, with dire consequences. So many people are now dying from suicide and overdoses that it’s affecting the life expectancy of huge demographics in our country. Something is very wrong. Without those critical spiritual and community connections that our parents and grandparents relied on, we often struggle to find meaning, to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. I want to take this opportunity to encourage young people to find ways to stay connected to each other and their communities. It’s so important. And please remember that social media is no substitute for human connection.

When you think about mental health treatment today versus 10 years ago, what improvements do you see and what do we still need to work on?

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which required insurers to provide mental health services that were on par with physical health services, and the Affordable Care Act, which built on the Parity Act, laid some critical groundwork. However, mental health care is still separate and unequal due to unchecked practices occurring in payment and reimbursement. The only way we’re going to change this is by requiring health insurance companies to be more transparent so that they can be held accountable under federal law.

Of course, providers and prescribers must be accountable as well, by relying on evidence-based practices and adhering to national guidelines when treating both addiction and chronic pain. When it comes to addiction treatment, specifically, we have so much work to do. It is way past time to break down the social, political and insurance barriers to evidence-based addiction recovery services.

We need a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)–like response to the current opioid crisis. FEMA was created to address all the missing pieces necessary for someone to recover from a disaster. In recovery, we have a physical problem, a mental obsession, and a spiritual malady. People need medical help – access to medication to get their lives stabilized. They need the psychological component of cognitive behavioral therapy. And they need the spiritual angle, which is social support – people reaching out to each other. Until we are able to address these three core areas, the crisis will continue.

RELATED: Tap into the many resources provided by the College’s Counseling and Substance Abuse Services, including self-help apps and resources for everything from stress and grief to homesickness and panic attacks.

What needs to happen to bring America’s mental health system into the 21st century?

First and foremost, we need to enforce the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 and end discrimination against people with mental health and substance use disorders. But insurance coverage is not the only area where we see tremendous disparity between mental health conditions, substance use disorders and other medical conditions. The current state of affairs for mental health is not on par with the rest of health care in many areas – timely access to care, care coordination, disease surveillance, research funding, electronic medical records, how law enforcement and the criminal justice system interface with people with behavioral health conditions and investment in early intervention.

What is the biggest obstacle to dispelling the stigma of mental illness/substance addictions moving forward?

The biggest obstacle is combatting the disgraceful notion that mental illness and addiction are in any way, shape or form “moral failings.” They are brain diseases, and they must be treated as such with both medical and behavioral care. Why aren’t doctors asking if we have a family history of mental illness or addiction? They ask us about other diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. People struggling with mental illness and/or addiction are often treated like second-class citizens. We have to change this narrative. At the end of the day, this is about equality.

What’s the single most important thing that we can do as individuals to help treat mental illness and substance abuse disorder?

Find your voice. That means turning your thoughts and feelings into action through communication with your elected officials and holding your insurance programs accountable.