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Talk About It: Breaking the Stigma of Addiction and Mental Illness

As a flight attendant, Julie found herself drawn to the international nightlife, drinking at bars in London, cafes in Paris and pubs in Ireland.

“It all sounds so glamorous, but near the end, most of my drinking was done alone in my room.… I was living a double life and it was taking everything I had to keep up the charade. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

It was her determination to have a better life for herself and her children that led her to seek help.

“My first step was admitting I was an alcoholic and couldn’t control my drinking,” Julie shared on Heroes in Recovery.

Once she got past the difficult hurdle of admitting her addiction to herself, she had to face admitting it to others, bringing her secret life out into the light of day.

“The toughest thing about sobriety is taking that first step,” said Julie. “The step into the unknown, letting go of the thinking, the people, the places and things that hold us hostage. It is important to replace the old stories of who we are with new stories of the people we want to become.”

Telling others that your life is changing and you are in recovery can be difficult because of the stigma attached to mental health disorders like addiction. Although almost 10 percent of the country’s population sought addiction therapy in 2011 and more people have died from opioid drug overdoses than perished in the Vietnam War, those individuals who are brave enough to admit they live with addiction can still face shaming and isolation. Our history of criminalizing addiction and institutionalizing those with mental health needs has left a scar on American society that is slow to fade.

Fortunately, the mindset of our medical community is changing with research. What therapists and doctors want us to understand is that addiction and mental health needs are like any other disease. A person recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or alcoholism needs support from family and community in the same way a person fighting cancer does.

By educating the public that addiction and mental issues are both common and treatable, like any other disease, they hope to remove the stigma. They encourage forgiveness by family and friends for actions during a person’s active addiction. Healing past hurts has become a cornerstone in mental health treatment that benefits society as a whole with restored families and relationships.

Treatment experts also embrace the power of celebrating stories of recovery. Websites that publish inspiring personal stories leave a trail of breadcrumbs that show the way out of the darkness of depression and other mental health disorders. The Livin website, endorsed by Thor actor Chris Hemsworth, uses stories to educate the public and replace stigma with understanding, acceptance and hope.

Sites like Mental Health First Aid offer training that has equipped over 1 million people to help those experiencing a mental health crisis. Grassroots sites like Heroes in Recovery welcome anyone to share their story and remind others that, no matter how isolating addiction may seem, they aren’t alone.

Celebrity Lady Gaga published her own story of recovery from PTSD on the website for her Born This Way Foundation, which supports mental health. In a candid letter to fans she encourages them to speak out and change society’s mindset.

“I am doing various modalities of psychotherapy and am on medicine prescribed by my psychiatrist. However, I believe that the most inexpensive and perhaps the best medicine in the world is words. Kind words … positive words … words that help people who feel ashamed of an invisible illness to overcome their shame and feel free,” wrote Lady Gaga. “This is how I and we can begin to heal. I am starting today, because secrets keep you sick. And I don’t want to keep this secret anymore.”


Pat Matuszak is a writer for Foundations Recovery Network. Her background includes news journalism, magazine feature writing, editing for websites, fiction and nonfiction books. She is an author of adult, teen and children’s books. View her website.