Nonprofit founded by Patrick J. Kennedy, who has faced his own challenges with bipolar disorder and addiction, works to expand mental health care.
When the Kennedy Forum was launched in 2013, the U.S. government was finalizing regulations for the broadest application of “mental health parity” since legislation to equalize insurance coverage was first introduced 17 years before.
The nonprofit’s early focus involved tracking and fostering real-world implementation of policies mandating comparable coverage for behavioral and “medical” health care. Its aims have broadened over the years to include making the criminal justice system less punitive for people with psychiatric disorders and promoting earlier interventions for young people.
The current social and political climate may boost momentum for such initiatives. Media attention to rising rates of emotional distress during the pandemic have brought the need for better behavioral health services and workplace policies to the forefront.
Meanwhile, a flurry of headlines this past summer and fall showcased the mental health struggles of high-profile professional athletes—from tennis star Naomi Osaka to NFL players Solomon Thomas and Calvin Ridley—and 2021 Olympians such as gymnast Simone Biles and weightlifter Kate Nye.
“As more and more Americans embrace mental health as an essential part of overall health … more than ever, we’re moving from awareness to action as one unified community,” says former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of the Kennedy Forum.
Kennedy, who has faced his own challenges with addiction and bipolar disorder, was a leading proponent of mental health parity legislation during his days in politics. He says the forum works behind the scenes to network policymakers, advocates, employers, and educators in order to push forward “what needs to happen to better connect people to care and save lives.”
The pandemic triggered a “crisis in child and adolescent mental health,” according to a coalition of associations dedicated to pediatric care that in October declared the situation a national emergency. The following month, the Kennedy Forum hosted a webinar on how schools can meet students’ mental health needs. Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, headlined the panel.
“Patrick Kennedy and Amy Kennedy and the entire Kennedy Forum have been pushing for this to be a top priority of policymakers in a way that, frankly, it hasn’t been before,” says David Lloyd, senior policy advisor for the nonprofit,
(Amy Kennedy, a former schoolteacher who married Patrick Kennedy in 2010, serves as the Kennedy Forum’s education director.)
The organization has been advocating for more mental health awareness training for teachers and administrators. Longer-term proposals include student screening to identify potential mental health concerns and integrating social-emotional learning into school curriculum and culture.
“Without social-emotional well-being, it’s really difficult for kids to learn,” says Lloyd.
Across the board
Other Kennedy Forum events in the past year have looked at hot-button topics such as racial inequity in the health care system, the roles of both employers and organized labor in addressing workers’ well-being, how language in the media can perpetuate negative bias that fuels discrimination, and the status of addiction and mental health issues as the pandemic lurches through its second year.
Ensuring compliance with federal parity law, established under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, continues to be a priority. The legislation requires insurance plans to cover treatment for mental health and substance use disorders no more restrictively than treatment for standard medical conditions.
Plans call for reviewing parity compliance analyses, now required from plan providers under 2021 amendments to the law, and pursuing the next frontier: expanding the law to include Medicare, which currently has “terrible mental health and addiction coverage,” Lloyd says.
“A lot of our work is advancing conversations that we think are really important,” he notes. “We’re making progress, but mental health still isn’t the national priority that it needs to be at every level of government.”
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