Mental & Emotional Health

A Lesson from Mary Kennedy's Death

Mary Richardson Kennedy’s death could not have been unanticipated. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 90 percent of people who die from suicide have the risk factors of depression and other mental disorders, including substance abuse disorders.

Any knowledgeable health provider versed in dual diagnosis could have told the Kennedy and Richardson families that it was not a good idea for Mary to be living alone and to have total responsibility for her finances and health.

Apparently, Bobby Kennedy Jr. had been trying to win sole custody of his children. Perhaps his intention was to protect them from their mother’s mood swings and binges. Should we give him the benefit of the doubt? He is admittedly a strong steward of the land. But he was not so staunch at providing care for a woman he had loved who was the mother of his children. He was a still-married man dating Hollywood stars.

Sources say Bobby had tried to get Mary into drug and alcohol treatment but she would not go. That is how strong addiction is. Even when a woman has lost her husband and was losing her children, she could not be her own advocate to help herself, especially while grappling with depression and its insidious messages of negativity.

When left to their own devices, suicide is often the only action that makes sense for those with both mental illness and addiction. How do I know? My own dual diagnosis family member has had numerous close calls. Because he is my child, divorce is not an option. Love and compassion are the only choices I ever entertained.

I don’t know if Bobby Kennedy understood his wife’s dual diagnosis. But I do know that Congressman Patrick Kennedy has publicly admitted his own dual diagnosis and fought ferociously for insurance coverage of mental illness in the same way we have coverage for physical illnesses.

Without vigilant treatment of depression, this mental illness does not get better. Faith, friends, and family help, but one hopes that Mary Richardson Kennedy had access to a psychiatrist, therapists, and counselors versed in dual diagnosis – the complicated interplay of mental illness with substance abuse.

Those of us who have struggled with the challenges of family members with a dual diagnosis know that addiction and alcoholism treatment won’t be successful unless the underlying depression is treated and we also know that depression doesn’t get better without drug and alcohol treatment. People who suffer from a mental illness like depression, which is a brain disorder, can’t see things as they are. Like addiction, most mental illnesses are diseases of perception. That’s why it is so important for family members to advocate for proper treatment and medication and to be involved in health decisions.

At the moment, it sounds as though Mary’s family feels bitter toward Bobby’s actions. That’s often the way it is when relatives and friends have not come to terms with a family member’s mental illness. There are those in denial, those in the know, those with compassion who never give up, and those who flee to live their own lives.

Judy Kirkwood writes articles for print and web publications – national, regional, and local; is a contributing writer to Simply the Best and Boca Raton Observer magazines in South Florida; and plays on the beach and in the pool year-round. Visit her on Facebook @JudysFlorida and please visit

Judy Kirkwood is on the Parent Advisory Board of Partnership at ( She is the ThirdAge Forum Director and a Contributing Writer for the site.


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