“Inner Space Is Like Outer Space”: Patrick Kennedy and how to Approach the Crisis in Behavioral Health

by Mark Thompson, April 4, 2018
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At the recent Mental Health Corporations of America (mhca) winter conference, I listened to Patrick Kennedy’s talk about how conquering the challenges of inner space is analogous to when Jack Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon.

I will be speaking at mhca’s spring conference on the subject of the future of the healthcare ecosystem as well, so I thought it’s a good time to share both what I learned and a preview of some of the themes in my upcoming presentation.

1.      The future of healthcare must be based on sound system design principles

My firm believes healthcare delivery can be better structured based on a form of design thinking we call Design for Emergence or Network Design. As Patrick stated, “It is all systems analysis.” There are common data elements in Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s; however, they have different research institutes and funding. Since dementia and intellectual disabilities are fundamentally the same, we should try cracking the code by working across domains and disciplines to build a single “highway of the mind” (which Patrick is doing through his One Mind organization).

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said to interviewer David Pogue this past Sunday that compassion and empathy were central to his company’s business. When Pogue questioned why, Nadella explained that it is the only way to innovate: “We are solving for unarticulated needs of the customer. The only way we can do that is to empathize.”

Those familiar with design thinking will immediately recognize the first step in the design thinking process: empathize. This must be the first step in designing a robust healthcare system. Design thinking, as typically applied, doesn’t go far enough because it focuses on solving for the customer experience. But in a multifaceted ecosystem like the healthcare, who really is the customer? In a very real sense, it’s all of us.

Patrick Kennedy epitomizes the radical transparency that is needed if we are to fix what psychologist Gabor Maté calls our “toxic culture.” Maté is right, the further we get from our hunter-gatherer origins, the greater the incidence of depression. So, if our culture is sick, it means we are sick. This is what makes Patrick’s radical transparency so useful and necessary. Kennedy is unabashed in sharing his personal challenges as a dual-diagnosis patient in our healthcare system, his family, and our society. His bravery is remarkable as a high-functioning public figure to share his experience with not just one, but two, highly stigmatized conditions (depression and alcoholism/substance abuse) in such an open way.

2.      Social media is part of the disease – and can be part of the cure

We have been creating an environment that is somehow worse for ourselves mentally than anything our forebears ever confronted. The day-to-day social comparison social media inflicts is particularly toxic. We know from psychology that social comparison makes us feel worse about ourselves. A young man in a hunter-gatherer group would believe himself to be a fully capable young adult male as the comparison set would be small. Most of the males in his village were likely older or younger and he would simply be one of a small set of healthy, capable young men. But today, that same young man would likely feel inadequate because he compares himself not to the handful of people is his tribe, but to world-famous athletes or other celebrities worldwide. This is one way that our culture is making us sick. And study after study shows that the more time we spend on social media, the greater the likelihood of depression.

Social media is predicted to eclipse TV in the next 18 months. Interestingly, mhca’s Lonnie Parizek shared exactly who’s missing in social media: 60% of Fortune 500 CEOs. That’s why in this social media age, we all need to be more transparent as leaders. At least 38% of young people are looking for medical information on social media, meaning we can be present when people seek help. CEO news flash: You are the number-one brand ambassador. People expect to be able to reach you. Seventy-seven percent of consumers say a social media-using CEO creates a greater sense of transparency. And 80% of employees prefer to work for a socially engaged CEO. Additionally, according to a survey by Development Dimensions International, the perception of CEOs who use social media is enhanced in several categories. Social media-savvy CEOs are viewed as:

·      89% more empowering of others

·      52% more compelling communicators

·      46% more influential

·      36% better at cultivating networks

·      19% more passionate for real results

·      16% better at higher-quality decision-making

In response to Lonnie Parizek’s talk, the CEOs jumped and cheered, saying “Oh [expletive]! I can no longer leave this to my media department!”

3.      Behavioral health must create a unified voice

Sixty-four thousand Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016. For comparison, the entire Vietnam War claimed the lives of roughly 50,000 US soldiers. Mental health is the leading cause of disability worldwide; there can ultimately be no health without mental health. Yet we have been able to muster comparatively little in the way of public dollars to meet this crisis. Brilliant minds like John Sheehan of Harbor Health and Bruce Bird of VinFen are pioneering the use of new technologies and forms of integrated care delivery with great local impact. The challenge is to get more national adoption of best practices and, as Patrick Kennedy says, to get the 15 or so national mental health associations to have a coherent voice in policy-making.

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