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Opinion/Kennedy: As a Kennedy, I’ve lived my whole life in the shadow of gun violence

·4 min read

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-Rhode Island, is founder of The Kennedy Forum, co-chair of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Mental Health & Suicide Prevention National Response to COVID-19 (National Response), and co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Behavioral Health Integration Task Force.

History books will one day reflect the darkness of these times. It seems each week brings a new disaster to process and lament.

Psychologists define complex trauma as the wide-ranging, long-term effects of exposure to multiple traumatic events. Many of us are suffering from it. The effects of being on “high alert” from enduring tragedy after tragedy can profoundly impact our thoughts, actions, relationships, and health. Substance use is a common way to cope.

The recent surge of unthinkable gun violence has Americans more on edge than ever before. Stress hormones are surging through the population, leaving behind a trail of internal destruction that can be imprinted onto loved ones and even passed down through generations.

My father, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, suffered through the murders of not one but two of his brothers: John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. The trauma he experienced never left him. It sat silent, just below the surface, impacting every aspect of his life in subtle and not so subtle ways. In my home, bullet-proof vests could be found in every closet. Constant vigilance was an unspoken reality we unfortunately learned to live with. It all became “normal.”

But now, as I look back on my youth through the lens of maturity and self-awareness, I understand the destruction that “normal” caused. My dad found his own ways to navigate life, but the damage was done. I inherited, through some combination of nature and nurture, the impact of severe trauma, the pressures of being on high alert, and a brain chemistry that left me vulnerable to mental illness. My attempts to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol cost me years of my life. Every day, I fight to break that cycle for my own children.

The terrorism we are now experiencing as a nation because of gun violence — and the resulting depression, anxiety, and addiction that will alter the trajectory of countless lives — must be stopped.

That will only happen through serious gun reform.

Recently, a bipartisan group of lawmakers put forth legislation for modest new gun-reform policies, as well as new spending on mental health and school security. The bill calls for additional funding to school-based mental health resources and a nationwide rollout of the certified community behavioral health centers (CCBHCs) model. CCBHCs across the country would provide mental health and addiction treatment, around the clock crisis care, and comprehensive outpatient services through a Medicaid grant program.

The bill also calls for more funding for suicide and violence prevention programs, early identification and intervention programs, school-based mental health professionals and wrap-around services, and telehealth access to mental health care for children and young adults.

While advocates like me welcome each of these opportunities to improve our nation’s mental health care system — and have fought for similar actions for decades — let’s be very clear. Mental illness is not the cause of gun violence. Countries across the globe have similar incidence of mental illness, yet the U.S. is the only country where mass shootings are disturbingly commonplace.

The reality of our grave situation should not be watered down. No amount of mental health funding in the world is going to negate the mass availability of military-grade weapons that intersect in horrific ways with hate and racism. No new resources are going to stop the viscous cycle of violence, trauma, inaction, and desensitization happening before our eyes.

It’s time we start treating gun violence as the national security crisis that it is and taking the bold steps necessary to save lives. Anything less dishonors the memories of those killed, and is a slap in the face to loved ones whose lives have been forever changed by 200+ mass shootings that have occurred less than halfway into 2022.

In 1996, I spoke on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, opposing the repeal of the Assault Weapons Ban. Fueled by the memories of my family tragedies, I pleaded with colleagues to open their eyes to dangers ahead. My views have not changed today.

The new legislation is a step in the right direction, to pull ourselves out of denial. However, without further action to address the wide availability of weapons of war, America will continue to be exceptional in experiencing frequent mass casualty events in its churches, schools, grocery stores, and other places where people should be able to gather without fear.

Congress: let’s stop the cycle of blaming mental illness and confront our societal issues for what they are, not what we want them to be.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Opinion/Kennedy: As a Kennedy, I’ve lived my whole life in the shadow of gun violence