Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy isn’t afraid to open up about mental health, and how access to care and treatment have helped save his life. Suicide Prevention Month, which runs through September, demands “urgency and advocacy” for what he calls a reversible epidemic.

In a video interview with APHA’s Public Health Newswire, Kennedy discussed personal and professional experiences with mental health illness, harsh statistics on national suicide rates and reasons for hope. Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, hosted by the World Health Organization and the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

“Thirty-eight thousand Americans successfully take their lives every year; 18 of our nation’s heroes, veterans, are taking their lives every day,” Kennedy said. “And 90 percent taking their lives are suffering from underlying mental illness. You know that if we were to better treat the underlying mental illness, we would have a very good chance at reducing the overall suicide rate.”

Patrick Kennedy

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy. Photo by APHA

The delivery of mental health services, which under the Affordable Care Act will be considered an essential health benefit that must be provided to patients beginning in 2014, is an emerging national priority — including addressing  the impacts of concussions in the NFL and other sports, student bullying and veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. As a congressman, Kennedy played a major role in winning passage into law of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which he says will ensure that Americans under health plans receive mental health services equal to coverage promised for physical ailments.

During the monthly observance, Kennedy said that Americans need “a checkup from the neck up.”

“Suicide is an example that these are fatal illnesses if they’re not treated,” he said. “We wouldn’t dream of denying people of cancer treatment until they had stage-4, but that’s what we routinely do in mental health. We wait until it becomes a crisis instead of working to prevent it. We need to galvanize people to make sure mental health is vigorously covered in health care plans around the country.”