JFK: The Influence of Legacy

Shaping Our Legacy

It has been said that tragedy lies between what is and what could have been.


Tomorrow marks 50 years since the assassination of our 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Coinciding with the dawn of reporting on television, the image of JFK being struck by two fatal bullets has been indelibly etched upon generations of this nation’s citizens. The lasting impact he left on this country stands in stark contrast to the brevity of his presidency.

With current approval ratings of 75% and higher, JFK remains the most popular modern president. Debates about JFK’s legislative accomplishments during his thousand days in office can be left to political pundits and historians. What we can all agree on, without doubt, is the legacy of hope that JFK inspired.

In our current social climate, the masses are desperate for that bright beacon of light. We clamor to those individuals who seem to project some semblance of that glimmer. A spark to ignite the primal fires of innovation and reform that rage with the echoes of humanity’s history.

Every decade or so, we seem to believe we have found that spark. We subsequently become witnesses, however, as that small flicker of hope becomes extinguished.

The abundance of hope that JFK inspired in the nation has yet to be smothered. His charm, wit, youthful exuberance, and promises of a better and brighter future are indicative of the spirit of human resiliency.

This resiliency is particularly evident in JFK’s vision of repairing the mental health system in this country. 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Community Mental Health Act. The aim of the initiative was to implement federally funded foundations devoted to treating mental health illnesses in community mental health agencies and research facilities.

JFK@Rice 1962.

JFK’s mission was “to bestow the full benefits of our society on those who suffer from mental disabilities, to promote–to the best of our ability and by all possible and appropriate means–the mental and physical health of all our citizens.”

50 years later, JFK’s words ring hollow in a country dominated by health insurance companies which refuse to see – and pay for –  the “medical necessity” of mental health services. A time in which it will take six years to approve The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA), which will require particular health plans to ensure that financial requirements and treatment limitations that apply to mental-health or substance-abuse benefits be equitable to the limits placed upon medical or surgical benefits (the recent final ruling will apply to services rendered on or after July 1, 2014). A fractured society in which we still shun those with mental health illnesses and attach a stigma to individuals who are courageous enough to voice aloud their conditions. A community wherein almost 40% of people who are chronically homeless have a significant mental health disorder, people we pass daily on the streets as we drive to work, warm in our cars, our cell phones and brand-name coffee in hand. People we consciously do not bother giving the courtesy of acknowledgement as fellow human beings.

More people are being treated for mental illness today than at any other point in history. While significant strides in research, medication, and the basic understanding of mental health have been made, we are still in a place, where as JFK succinctly warned, “the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won.”


Now is the time to pick up the spirit of hope and change of JFK’s legacy and move forward. The onus of responsibility is on us, the people, to embrace scientific advances and advocate for public policies that support the expansion of services to those in need.

Now is the time to ask what we can do for our country, to effect rather than be affected. If we continue to be taught what to think and not how to think, if we remain passive recipients of rhetoric, policy, and ideological dogma, how can we possibly be agents of change?

Will we actualize our future through the words of T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas: will our world end not with a bang, but with a whimper or will we rage against the dying of the light?

If tragedy lies between what is and what could have been, promise lies between what is and what can be.

What will be our legacy?

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