Patrick J. Kennedy is calling on the nation to take action following the death of his cousin, Saoirse Kennedy Hill.
The former Rhode Island Congressman, 52, opened up to NBC Nightly News on Friday, where he emphasized the need for more attention on mental health after his cousin, who spoke candidly about her battle with depression, died from an apparent overdose.
Patrick, who is the son of Ted Kennedy, also praised Saoirse, 22, 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 NBC Nightly News on Friday. “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.”
Saoirse Kennedy Hill’s death is putting a spotlight on America’s mental health crisis, after writing about her own struggles years ago.— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) August 2, 2019
“This is a public health threat,” her cousin and former Congressman Patrick Kennedy tells @TVKateSnow.
More tonight on @NBCNightlyNews. pic.twitter.com/m9OWZTGtiw
Patrick also echoed his sentiments earlier in the day on Twitter, where he wrote several heartfelt messages in the wake of the devastating news.
The former politician first posted a gorgeous shot of his younger cousin and wrote on Twitter, “Saoirse will always remain in our hearts. She is loved and will be deeply missed.”
He then went on to share Saoirse’s emotionally-raw essay for her high school’s student newspaper, where the then 19-year-old wrote candidly of her own mental health struggles, including her time in a treatment facility after a suicide attempt.
Saoirse will always remain in our hearts. She is loved and will be deeply missed. pic.twitter.com/HIyLBivXQD— Patrick J. Kennedy (@PJK4brainhealth) August 2, 2019
In his tweets, Patrick encouraged his followers to read Saoirse’s words before urging for the nationwide stigma around 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 alongside the link to the published piece. “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.”
Feel what she felt. Do whatever you can from your position in life to stop the isolation, the stigma, and the devastating lack of acknowledgement that often leads to tragedy. Families across the nation, including ours, are suffering. We must come out of the shadows.— Patrick J. Kennedy (@PJK4brainhealth) August 2, 2019
A source close to the Kennedy family told PEOPLE that Saoirse was found at her grandmother Ethel Kennedy‘s home Thursday after an apparent overdose.
On Friday, the local prosecutor’s office confirmed that police responded to the scene, in Hyannis Port, one day earlier at about 3 p.m.
The Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office did not specify the nature of the police call in their statement on Friday, beyond saying that Saoirse was found unresponsive at the scene and pronounced dead at a local hospital.
“An autopsy performed today has revealed no trauma inconsistent with lifesaving measures,” prosecutors said. “The cause and manner of death are pending the toxicology report.”
Both local and state police are currently investigating, according to the D.A.’s office.
Shortly after the tragedy, the famous political family confirmed the news of Saoirse’s death in a statement to PEOPLE.
“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.”
Family matriarch Ethel, 91, also said of her granddaughter’s unexpected passing, “The world is a little less beautiful today.”
“She lit up our lives with her love, her peals of laughter and her generous spirit,” Ethel said. “Saoirse was passionately moved by the causes of human rights and women’s empowerment and found great joy in volunteer work, working alongside indigenous communities to build schools in Mexico. We will love her and miss her forever.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” 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.