It’s time to destigmatize chemical dependency and mental health conditions

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This summer, our community was rocked by the sudden and tragic deaths of at least four Central Georgians due to poisonous tablets sold on the streets disguised as a prescription pain killer. Since 2000, deaths from drug overdoses have increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent increase in overdose deaths involving opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control in 2016.

If overdose dangers weren’t enough, 1 in 4 Americans will face a mental health challenge in their lifetime. One in seven who drink or use drugs will experience addiction. Many times mental health conditions and substance abuse go hand-in-hand as individuals try to cope. There is, however, good news. Treatment is effective, and recovery can be expected.

As CEO of River Edge Behavioral Health and a licensed clinical social worker since 1991, I have witnessed firsthand the life transforming effects of evidence-based treatment. All too often, however, our society has shunned and shamed those who need help, deterring them from getting the treatment they desperately need and deserve.

September is National Recovery Month — a perfect time for the Central Georgia community to join together in new ways to destigmatize behavioral health issues and support individuals on journeys to recovery.

Consider the statistics mentioned earlier: if 1 in 4 Americans will face a mental health challenge in their lifetime, and 1 in 7 who drink or use drugs will experience addiction, it’s safe to say you or one of your friends, family members, co-workers, or neighbors is struggling today. Truly, if it is not you, it is someone you love.

We wouldn’t shame someone with diabetes or someone with high blood pressure. We wouldn’t define him solely by his illness. We would see him as a valuable individual with a life-threatening illness if left untreated. We would encourage him to seek help. For an individual with addictive disease or mental illness we should do the same.

In what specific ways can we bring hope and help?

First, let’s discuss mental health challenges and addictions openly, honestly and accurately. Let’s reinforce the message that addiction and mental illness are biologically based brain disorders that do not recognize age, race, gender, education, socioeconomic status, or geographic region. These conditions affect everyone from the senator’s son to the homeless.

Next, let’s live from the research-based truth that treatment is effective and recovery is real and possible. Individuals are more likely to seek help if their friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances approach these topics without judgement and fear.

Finally, if you or a loved one is facing a mental health challenge or addiction, please seek treatment today.

It’s up to us to end the lingering stigma about mental illness and addictive disease in our communities. Now is the time.

For more information about recovery month and how you can help, visit. www.recoverymonth.gov.

Shannon Terrell Gordon is the chief executive officer of River Edge Behavioral Health and a licensed clinical social worker with more than 25 years of experience in the behavioral healthcare field.

River Edge Behavioral Health provides state-of-the-art treatment and support services for more than 13,000 children, youth, families, and adults annually who experience mental illness, addiction, co-occurring disorders, or developmental and intellectual disabilities. River Edge services extend throughout Central Georgia, including Baldwin, Macon-Bibb, Crawford, Houston, Jones, Monroe, Peach, Putnam, Twiggs, and Wilkinson counties and will expand to Fulton County in 2018. Learn more at River-Edge.org. For help, call 478-803-7700.