The Kennedy Forum Illinois: Collaboration to drive solutions

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So often when we speak about mental illness and substance use disorders, we talk about numbers: the number of people who have died from overdoses; the number of people who take antidepressants; the cost of mental health to society at large.

However, at the Kennedy Forum Illinois in December, keynote speakers put a face and soul to mental illness and addiction. Elizabeth Vargas, ABC news anchor, stated, “People think that if you’re an alcoholic, you must be the guy living under the bridge, who doesn’t have a job, wearing the raincoat, looks terrible, always has a bottle in a brown paper bag – and that is just not true. That’s not how most alcoholics look. The vast majority of alcoholics look like you and me.”

Daryl “DMC” Daniels, performer in the iconic rap group RUN-DMC, reminded people of the power we have to defeat it. “The reason I’m here is to let you know something: You have the power to defeat and beat. You have the power to defeat this. It starts with you, and the people who love you.”

Founded by long-time mental health advocate and frequent Beacon Health Options collaborator, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the third annual forum attracted national and global thought leaders, as well as everyday people. The forum’s goal was to promote cross-industry innovation so that addiction can claim one less face, one less soul.

It starts with people

Many young adults with mental health conditions already understand Daniels’ assertion about the “power to defeat and beat,” and several shared their stories about building resiliency at a community forum, “Young Minds: Building Resilience and Well Being for the Next Generation.” Recognizing that good mental health for youth starts in the schools, Kennedy Forum participants committed to the collaboration between school systems and community-based mental health professionals to identify students with mental health needs faster and provide them with care sooner. That means pushing for an integrated system of care that touches young people when and where they need services.

People think that if you’re an alcoholic, you must be the guy living under the bridge, who doesn’t have a job, wearing the raincoat, looks terrible, always has a bottle in a brown paper bag – and that is just not true. That’s not how most alcoholics look. The vast majority of alcoholics look like you and me. 

For working adults, the workplace is the natural setting for mental health advocacy efforts. Indeed, depression is the leading cost of disability among workers, costing the US economy more than $51 billion in absenteeism and lost productivity, and $26 billion in direct treatment costs, according to Mental Health America. However, most employers aren’t equipped to deal with it. At a Corporate Leadership breakfast, “Leadership for Change,” attendees shared ideas on how to produce a mentally healthy workforce. One of those ideas presented was the “Working Well” toolkit, a collaboration among 40 organizations to educate employers about current best practices for creating a supportive workplace. Beacon’s Dr. Jorge Petit was one of the toolkit’s authors.

Across the nation

The forum also focused on the one condition that extends far beyond schools and the workplace, one that knows no bounds. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy led a discussion on his groundbreaking report, Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, which presents the science on substance use, addiction and health. Most strikingly, the report asserts that addiction is a chronic brain disease, not a moral failing or a lack of will power. Beacon agrees, and in 2015, issued recommendations to solve the opioid addiction crisis in its White Paper entitled, “Confronting the Crisis of Opioid Addiction,” which focuses on a chronic care model to treat this chronic condition.

The timing of this year’s Kennedy Forum coincided with Congressional passage of the “21st Century Cures Act,” which provides for mental health reform and a path forward to solving our opioid epidemic. Behavioral health is clearly front-and-center with all key stakeholders – advocates, insurers, policymakers – to ensure that all Americans remain on track to get the help they need. Indeed, Beacon’s participation in the Kennedy Forum embodies our goal of providing thought leadership to key policymakers on improving behavioral health. We look forward to 2017 as the year that brings to fruition the groundwork laid by 2016, a noteworthy year for behavioral health reform.

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