Mental Health is as Important as Physical Health

As the daughter of Senator Robert Kennedy and as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, I have worked with community activists, mental health professionals, educators, police and the next generation of political leaders to make sure we deal frankly and openly with the challenge of mental health. As Lt. Governor, I saw the difference that putting mental health counselors in our elementary schools made. As Chair of Innovations in Government at the Kennedy School, I heard testimony on how pairing police officers with social workers reduced crime and providing Naloxone to the police saves lives.

Still the mental health crisis in the United States persists — the opioid epidemic takes the lives of 130 Americans every day, and the high suicide rate of our veterans is a tragedy. Every day we lose 20 men and women who have served our country. Much more must be done.

Mental Health Awareness Month was established in 1949. We can take these 31 days to talk through problems...but we should use the rest of the year, to ACT. Conversations are important to reduce the stigma, but action helps reduce the harm.

Mental health reform is a challenge my family has championed throughout our time in public service. My uncle, former President John F. Kennedy, fought for the passing of the Community Mental Health Act. This act, signed in 1963, led to the creation of community mental health centers across the country, places where those suffering from mental illness could find support and treatment. Normalizing behavioral healthcare was an important step. But we still have work to do.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that suicide rates in Pennsylvania have increased 34 percent since 1999. Assisting vulnerable members of our community should be our top priority. My cousin, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, has devoted his life to addressing this, first with the Mental Health Parity Bill and now by launching PsychHub, an online education platform with over 100 free, short videos on mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention.

In Pennsylvania, counties are working to strengthen and expand social services, with up to two-thirds of the counties’ budget addressing this problem. One woman who is working hard to help those suffering from mental illness is Bucks County Commissioner Diane Marseglia. Diane is a trained social worker who, as commissioner, has been on the front lines in the fight for individuals struggling with mental illnesses. All too frequently, those who cannot afford adequate care fall through the cracks, and are often funneled into prisons where they endure systemic abuse and neglect. As Pennsylvanians continue their battle for affordable behavioral health care, we have public servants like Marseglia to thank for her persistence in the fight to ensure all Pennsylvanians who are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse issues are getting the care that they require.


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is an attorney who served as the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003. She is the daughter of Senator Robert Kennedy. Kathleen is chair of the nonprofit American Bridge and sits on the advisory board of Kennedy Democrats.


Kennedy Democrats