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Putting a Face on Mental Illness

Wednesday, Sep 25, 2013

Patrick Kennedy Leads Discussion at USC Gould

-By Gilien Silsby

(left to right) Elyn Saks, Michelle Wu, Evan Langinger and Patrick Kennedy

After decades of discrimination, stigma and silence, it is time to banish prejudice and put a face on mental illness, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy told a packed audience at USC Gould School of Law.

The event, “University Students Living with Mental Illness: Changing the Conversation,” was sponsored by the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics, and drew nearly 200 students, professors and mental health advocates.

Kennedy led the discussion with USC Gould Prof. Elyn Saks, USC Gould student Evan Langinger and USC psychiatry resident Michelle Wu. Stephen Behnke, director of Ethics for the American Psychological Association, moderated the event.

“I think we’re in the midst of the beginning of a new civil rights movement,” said Kennedy, who served in the House of Representatives for 12 years and is the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. “We’re dealing with medical treatment of a medical issue, and we’re dealing with prejudice. When you marry prejudice and ignorance together, you have a really ugly combination that marginalizes the treatment of these issues because they’re viewed as moral issues not medical issues; they’re viewed as character issues not chemistry issues. In order to get to the treatment we have to address the broader attitudinal barriers.”

Kennedy, who has struggled with bipolar disorder, addiction and depression, sponsored the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, a 2008 bill that requires most health insurance companies to offer equal mental health and physical health coverage.

“The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, is our civil rights act,” Kennedy said. “Brain health should be afforded the same treatment as cardiovascular health.”

Langinger, a third-year law student, and Wu, a third-year resident at USC, spoke publicly for the first time about their battles with mental illness and the difficulty they encountered finding help.

Wu said she developed depression as a second-year medical student at Northwestern University. She stopped showering, stopped going to class and lost 10 pounds, yet few people recognized she was depressed. “I went from the star of school to barely scraping by,” she said.  “Deans told me to study more, no one asked me how I was feeling… I would wake up and be disappointed that I didn't die during the night."

Langinger, who battles bipolar disease, was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley when he began experiencing signs of the disease after breaking up with his girlfriend. “Over the summer I went to see my primary care physician and I told him I just wasn’t feeling like myself… He prescribed an anti-depressant. But that was really terrible to give someone who has bipolar one disorder because it shot me in a manic phase. I had full blown mania for five months.”

He cashed out his Fidelity saving account, buying presents for both friends and strangers. “I wasn’t eating or sleeping or wearing shoes,” he said. “At one point my girlfriend said ‘shouldn’t you go home,’” and that resonated. He returned home and was admitted to a hospital where his bipolar disease was diagnosed. “I got appropriate treatment for my disorder and was able to have productive year as an undergraduate and I’m now in law school,” he said.


(Left to right) Evan Langinger, Patrick Kennedy,  Stephen Behnke, Michelle Wu and Elyn Saks

Kennedy said Langinger and Wu are models for their generation.

“What I see here is the kind of team we need to address this challenge. You have Elyn, who has committed to educating people on mental health, you have Michelle going into medicine and Evan going into law.

“Frankly we need to go at this at all levels,” he continued. “When you talk about advocacy, it needs all of us. This affects every family in one way or another. It’s going to take a comprehensive approach — we need to reform our law, our access to treatment and education.”

Mental health awareness is crucial for college campuses to address, said Saks. “College-age is when most usually start having breakdowns and start developing  bipolar illness, schizophrenia and depression. Many  students are away from home for the first time and are confused where to turn. We need to educate them and everyone who comes into contact with them.”

 Langinger and Wu agreed that the lack of knowledge and stigma keeps many students from seeking help. “I think you need to require a discussion on mental illness at college orientation – if it’s optional, no one will go,” Wu said.

Saks said that one of her goals for the Saks Institute is eradicate stigma associated with mental health so people will seek treatment – both students and professionals. “Often, people will not get treatment because they’re embarrassed. That’s got to end. It’s funny – people proudly wear t-shirts that say, “breast cancer survivor.” I would like to get to the point where I can wear a t-shirt that says schizophrenia and not feel stigma associated with it.”

Kennedy encouraged the audience to tell their stories of success and survival. “The beauty of telling stories…is that other people now identify with those stories and then they might be able to tell their story and then these illnesses don’t have such a powerful hold on all of us,” Kennedy said.

To watch the symposium, please go to

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