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Reframing Addiction: Removing Stigma, Saving Lives

April 03, 2017

Addiction_disease_brain_300Every parent worries about the harm his or her child might encounter in the world. As parents, we dedicate our time and energy to protecting our children from every preventable danger — accidents, violence, illness. Why, then, don't we take steps to stop the epidemic that is claiming more American lives than car crashes or gun violence — the devastating disease of addiction? Addiction is killing our children. Even worse, the stigma associated with addiction keeps many people who are affected from seeking treatment.

In 2011, I lost my son Brian to addiction. He didn't die of an overdose or as a result of a drug-related crime. In fact, he had been in recovery for more than a year. The undeniable reality is that it was not just addiction that claimed my son's life — it was the shame he felt every morning when he opened his eyes that led him that day to research suicide notes, light a candle, and take his own life.

Brian had struggled with the disease of addiction for nearly ten years, cycling through eight different treatment programs. He desperately wanted to lead a normal life. His substance-use disorder was not indicative of a lack of willpower on his part; rather, the chemistry of his brain continually worked against him. Brian wasn't irresponsible. He was always curious, cheerful, and consistently caring. A dear companion and a beloved child. Full of compassion.

I wish I could say my anguish has subsided over the years since his death. But it has only intensified with the knowledge that addiction is a disease that is preventable but that we don't prevent; that is treatable but that we don't treat; that is undeniable but that we continue to deny.

The science is indisputable, and experts, including those at the American Medical Association, agree: addiction is not a moral failing or a character flaw. Nor does it have to be a death sentence. But the stigmatization associated with the disease, the shame and the darkness and the misinformation, has resulted in a national epidemic that demands the full attention of our communities and government.

The statistics are startling. Every single day, thirty-nine hundred people start taking prescription painkillers without the guidance of a doctor, five hundred and eighty people start using heroin, and over a hundred sons, daughters, and friends die of an opioid overdose. Since 1980, drug overdose deaths have increased more than five-fold — in fact, more people died of drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. We are in the midst of a public health crisis with enormous costs to society, and it shows no signs of abating.

This can all change. Our country can invest in evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery strategies that are proven to work. We can share our stories and lift our voices to wash away the terrible stigma associated with the disease. That's why, in 2012, I founded Shatterproof, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the devastation that the disease of addiction causes families.

Our mission is to provide families with evidence-based resources, to foster a community of support, to advocate for policy change, and to end the stigma of addiction. We provide families with empathy, support, and the resources needed to navigate this new, uncertain territory. Thanks to support from generous donors, we've made significant progress and have launched a resource-rich website where families can get reliable information about the science of substance-use disorders and learn how to effectively prevent, treat, and recover from addiction.

To date, our advocacy work has helped secure the passage of lifesaving legislation in eleven states, and this year we're on the ground in five more. We're working hard to advocate for 911 Good Samaritan laws, which enable those present when someone overdoses to seek medical help and save a life without fear of arrest; laws that increase access to naloxone, a safe medication that can reverse an opioid overdose in minutes; and laws that strengthen Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, state-run databases that help physicians reduce the risk of accidental overdose and opioid misuse.

We've also successfully advocated on the federal level, supporting legislation like the Comprehensive Addiction & Recovery Act (CARA) and the 21st Century Cures Act, both of which authorize and appropriate much-needed federal funding for addiction prevention and treatment programs.

None of this urgently necessary, lifesaving work would be possible without philanthropic support from passionate individuals and organizations such as the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which recently awarded a $600,000 grant to Shatterproof. It's that simple. Addiction is a public health crisis of epidemic proportions, and it will take a national movement to turn the tide. Across the country, addiction is shattering families of every class, color, and creed. We can't afford to look away anymore.

Together, we can advocate for compassion and empathy, at venues ranging from from policy hearings on Capitol Hill to neighborhood barbecues. We can support the implementation of evidence-based programs that are proven to work — including medication-assisted treatment instead of abstinence-only models, routine mental health and substance-use screenings, and prevention techniques that promote healthy alternatives to substance use instead of simply harping on the dangers of drugs and addiction. We can help people like Brian feel safe talking about their disorder and encourage them to make peace with their past. We can bring those who suffer out of the darkness and into the light.

Gary_mendell_for_PhilanTopicMy greatest wish is that no other parent ever has to get that late-night phone call. If by working together we can prevent even one substance-use disorder-related death, I'd consider that a success.

Gary Mendell is founder and CEO of Shatterproof, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the devastation that addiction causes families.

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