Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, champion of treating mental disorders and addictions as legitimate health-care issues, urged an audience of 15,000 at the University of Rhode Island, including 3,434 undergraduates minutes away from getting their diplomas, to seek help for any brain-related malady as readily as they would a broken bone or disease.
Kennedy, 51, was the commencement speaker at URI’s main graduation on the Quadrangle on a sunny, breezy Sunday afternoon. He also received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree, which he said he valued because it made him a member of the class of 2019.
Speaking in a strong, clear voice about a topic that his family discussed only in whispers, he said his father, the late U.S. Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, was full of compassion “when it came to my asthma or my brother’s bone cancer,” but “when it came to my addictions,” his father’s response was: “Patrick just needs a swift kick in the ass.”
“I spent many years lost in a fog of shame,” Kennedy said. “Addiction was unimpressed that I came from a famous family.” It advanced. He sought help from a therapist but was so afraid of being found out that he would park around the corner from the therapist’s office.
He tried to hide his issues in Congress, he said, but on May 6, 2006, “I woke up at 3 a.m., thinking I was late for a vote.” He jumped in his car and, inebriated, crashed into a barrier. Confronted with a problem that could ruin a political career, it forced him to admit the truth and, he said, “I found my highest calling.” Colleagues from both sides of the aisle in both houses, he said, approached him privately to talk about their own solitary battles.
He devoted the rest of his time in Congress and his later advocacy career to erasing the stigma of mental, behavioral and substance use disorders and requiring health insurers to treat them the same as any physical disorder.
If the U.S. spent the same amount per life lost on preventing addiction and suicide as it does on preventing HIV/AIDS, he said, “we would spend $50 billion a year on mental health issues” Annual spending is $5 billion, compared with $24 billion on HIV/AIDS.
Calling overdose and suicide “a public health crisis,” he said $50 billion is a fraction of what the nation spent on the latest tax cut.
He has been continuously sober for eight years. He and his wife, Amy, live with their five children in Brigantine, N.J.
The class of 1969 announced its gift to the university of $1 million.
The student that the class of 2019 chose as its speaker was Stephen Joseph D’Aloisio, a communications major who served for two years inside the costume of URI mascot Rhody the Ram. He was wearing it when he met Jimmy Fallon, the host of “The Tonight Show.”
In the tradition of Fallon, he shared some quip-laden thank yous, such as: “Thank you Rhody bus system, I never understood your routes, but you showed me that life isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey.”
Although the dedication came at the beginning, Janice L. Grinnell, archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island and a chaplain at URI, told the departing seniors: “We send you forth into the world to be the person that you were created to be ... and only you can accomplish this specific purpose, because there is only one you.”
She also said: “What you focus on becomes your reality. So I ask that each of you look for the good in others, and you will find it; look for the ways to make a difference in your work, play and family, and you will find them ... ways to bring justice to all people ... peace to your environment, community and country .... Celebrate diversity, generosity, gentleness, acceptance, compassion, creativity, hospitality, kindness, and you will find prosperity.”
University of Rhode Island commencement
3,434 undergraduate degrees; 743 graduate degrees awarded at Saturday ceremony
Undergraduate speaker: Patrick Kennedy, former congressman
Student speaker: Stephen D’Aloisio, of Lincoln
Graduate speaker: James O. Prochaska, professor of clinical psychology
Honorary degree recipients: Kennedy; Edward Avedisian, clarinetist formerly with Boston Pops and Boston Ballet Orchestra; Margaret Brandon, president, Sea Education Association; John Grandin, founding director, URI’s international engineering program; Lynn Pasquerella, president, American Association of Colleges and Universities