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Santa Rosa summit: Reduce stigma of mental health treatment

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At a statewide mental health conference Wednesday in Santa Rosa, former U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy spoke openly about his own struggles with mental illness and addiction and the continued fight to make mental health services a priority.

Kennedy, the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, cautioned a group of almost 300 mental health workers and advocates from all over the state that difficult times are ahead, as lawmakers in Washington move to repeal Obamacare and cut the federal Medicaid program.

One such proposal, proposed by GOP member of Congress, would send Medicaid payments as block grants to states. Critics say that would most likely lead to deep cuts in the Medicaid program.

“When they block grant Medicaid under the Trumpcare and send it back to the states, you can bet the first thing that’s going to be cut in everyone of those block grants is services to people with mental illness addiction,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy, considered one of the nation’s leading mental health advocates, was one of two keynote speakers at the Cultural Competence Summit XX, a two-day mental health care conference aimed at highlighting local programs that bridge the gap between mental health services and minority groups such as the African American, Latino and LGBT communities. The conference, held at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel, continues Thursday.

The former congressman spoke of the need to overcome shame and stigma surrounding mental illness, as well as the struggle to make insurance companies cover mental health services at the same level they do for physical health care — a concept known as “parity.” As a Democratic member of Congress from 1995 to 2011 representing Rhode Island, Kennedy was lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which lacked strict enforcement.

He said given the political climate in Washington, D.C., it will be up to state attorneys general and insurance commissioners to force insurance companies to pay for mental health services on par with general medical benefits.

Darcy Woodall, a peer case manager who works for a Marin County nonprofit group called Community Action Marin, said Kennedy’s speech made her “hopeful” amid all the talk of repealing Obamacare and cuts to Medicaid.

“We’re all freaked out about the potential loss of ACA,” she said referring to Obama’s Affordable Care Act. “I want to get my head around the big picture again. This is helpful and inspiring to be around so many people with the same motivation.”

This year’s Cultural Competence Summit was organized by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services with funding from Sonoma and Alameda counties, and St. Joseph Health, Sonoma County.

Following Kennedy’s speech, suicide survivor and suicide-prevention advocate Kevin Berthia, originally of Oakland, gave a moving talk about events that led to him standing for 96 minutes on a 4-inch cord on the side of the Golden Gate Bridge, contemplating suicide.

Berthia, who also suffers from mental illness, said it was someone “listening” to him that saved his life March 11, 2005. That person was now-retired CHP Sgt. Keven Briggs.

Berthia, now a spokesman for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, travels the country telling his story. On Wednesday, he encouraged conference attendees to truly listen to those suffering from mental illness.

“Every single individual in this room can do what Briggs did for me that day,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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