"We have an underlying mental health crisis in this country that we need to address," Patrick J. Kennedy, who is the son of Ted Kennedy, told Dr. Oz
Nearly three months after his cousin, who spoke candidly about her battle with depression, died from an apparent overdose, Patrick, 52, appeared on Monday’s episode of The Dr. Oz Show, where he urged for a “comprehensive” plan to address the nation-wide “mental health crisis.”
The former Rhode Island Congressman made the demand as he was discussing the emotionally-raw essay Saoirse wrote for her high school’s student newspaper, where the then 19-year-old candidly described her own mental health struggles, including her time in a treatment facility after a suicide attempt.
“She was speaking to her friends in high school,” Patrick told Dr. Oz of the importance of Saoirse’s essay. “We’re seeing a giant leap in the number of suicide attempts and rates of depression and anxiety amongst kids and amongst college-age, young people.”
“So this is not a crisis that’s going to go away simply after Purdue Pharma stopped selling oxycodone,” he continued. “We have an underlying disease of addiction and we have an underlying mental health crisis in this country that we need to address and it’s not as simple as cutting off the supply of Pharma, it has to be more comprehensive than that.”
One of the ways that Patrick felt progress could be made was through an idea called “check-up from the neck-up,” which calls on the nation’s doctors to consider other hereditary illnesses during their annual examinations.
“When you go to your physician’s office and they take a family history of whether you’ve had stroke or cancer in the family, they ought to take a family history of whether you have alcoholism, or addiction, or mental illness in your family,” Patrick explained.
“Because the chances are, you’re going to be at high risk yourself if any other family members also suffer from one of those illnesses,” he added.
Saoirse, 22, was found dead on Aug. 1 at her grandmother Ethel Kennedy‘s home in Hyannis Port after an apparent overdose. Her cause and manner of death are still pending the toxicology report, according to the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office.
In a statement to PEOPLE, the famous political family confirmed the news of Saoirse’s untimely death.
“Our hearts are shattered by the loss of our beloved Saoirse. Her life was filled with hope, promise, and love,” the family said. “She cared deeply about friends and family, especially her mother Courtney, her father Paul, her stepmother Stephanie, and her grandmother Ethel.”
Shortly after the tragedy, Patrick, who is the son of Ted Kennedy, posted a photo of his younger cousin and wrote on Twitter, “Saoirse will always remain in our hearts. She is loved and will be deeply missed.”
He followed up his tweet by sharing a link to Saoirse’s essay and encouraging his followers to read her words, while also urging for the nationwide stigma about mental health to end.
“Saoirse’s sincere account of her depression is a powerful reminder of how so many people suffer alone and feel isolated,” he wrote. “I am proud Saoirse was able to be open and tell her story. I encourage everyone to read her words.”
“Feel what she felt. Do whatever you can from your position in life to stop the isolation, the stigma, and the devastating lack of acknowledgment that often leads to tragedy,” he continued.
“Families across the nation, including ours, are suffering,” Patrick finished. “We must come out of the shadows.”
Later that day, Patrick spoke out on NBC Nightly News and praised Saoirse as a “hero” for being open about her struggles, continuing to push the conversation forward, and getting professional help when she needed it.
“She opened the door for her peers to also come out and not feel shamed by this illness and she is a real hero in my family,” Patrick told the outlet. “She broke the silence.”
“And we mourn her loss but her memory will live on as someone who wasn’t going to keep silent and wasn’t going to be feeling as if she had something shameful, but rather something medical that she sought treatment for,” he continued.
“This affects every single family in America,” Patrick added. “It’s way past time that we deal with this in a way that we would deal with any other public health crisis.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
If you are struggling with addiction issues, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.