Estimates show that about 25% of U.S. adults have a substance use disorder. Even among those in recovery, very few are open about they’re substance use. Too often, the feelings of shame and stigma experienced by those with substance use disorders make them reluctant to talk about addiction, which in turn makes it difficult to ensure they get the support they need.
It’s time for a different dialogue.
I’ve proudly been in recovery for 22 years. Both personally and professionally, I know first-hand that we need more celebration and less shame. Every day, as I work with those facing substance use and mental health conditions, I understand that nothing creates empathy like shared experience. I can role-model what recovery looks like, and through open conversation help people find their own personal paths to recovery.
We need to grow our community support systems to treat substance use disorders and mental illness on par with the way we manage physical health. While addiction treatment and psychological care aren’t always physically visible, they, too, are lifesaving and require ongoing coordinated care management.
As a community, we need to talk about mental health issues the way we discuss heart surgery or diabetes treatment because the more we talk about it—the more awareness there is—creating better outcomes and ongoing recovery.
What We Need More Of
Building an effective recovery support system works best when it starts with community involvement. In my work, I’ve seen the benefit of initiatives aimed at breaking down barriers to substance use disorder recovery. Among them:
- Treatment programs. These programs often focus on peer support and encourage people to follow their care plans. For example, making sure they have needed medications and other resources.
- Trauma-informed behavioral healthcare providers. Studies show a high comorbidity between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders. Up to 59% of young people with PTSD subsequently develop substance abuse problems. Trauma-informed providers can help people understand there is nothing wrong with them, but instead, that something happened to them. This greatly reduces shame and increases the likelihood of maintaining recovery.
- Life skills training for people living with mental illness and substance use disorders. This kind of training includes how to find wellness tools, a daily maintenance plan, how to identify triggers, what a crisis looks like and how to create action plans. Also, how others can help if a person cannot make decisions, take care of themselves or keep themselves safe.
What We Can Do for Ourselves
In combination with community assistance, those in recovery also need to focus on their own personal well-being. Here are three places where we can start stamping out not just public stigma, but also the self-stigma associated with substance use disorders and recovery.
Think of Recovery as a Daily Habit
Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” So, let’s make recovery feel doable bytreating it as a continual process of improvement. I like to call this progress not perfection. By recognizing that recovery is a daily habit—like so many other daily habits—we show that it can be managed in small segments and as a regular part of our lives. Just remember that recovery is a verb, not a noun; all the small actions we may think don’t matter will eventually add up.
Remind Others That Recovery is Possible
Being able to talk about substance use disorders and recovery is key to helping people be okay with their recovery journeys. In my case, recovery has allowed me to develop a relationship with my mother, forgive my deceased father, have a career, own a home and most importantly become emotionally vulnerable, so that I can develop and maintain meaningful relationships. Being around others that inspire me gives me hope that I too can recover. It reminds me that sustainable recovery may not be easy, but it is doable.
Decide How You Define Mental Health
The more mentally healthy I am, the less likely I am to engage in self destructive behaviors. For me, mental health is a combined sense of physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. What that looks like for me is healthy eating, getting a good night’s sleep, exercising regularly, meditation, focusing on being positive, operating from a place of gratitude and having a strong connection to my higher power. All these things combined allow me to make my recovery more sustainable.
Whether it’s a public rally to applaud recovery or more intimate seminars that focus on recovery services, I’m committed to starting conversations about substance use throughout the community. When we band together as a set of people with lived experiences and allies within the community, we can change public opinion on substance use disorders and recovery. Together, we can move from shame to celebration and become a powerful, positive force for lasting recovery.
Delton Russell is a Member Engagement Specialist at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, where he assists members in navigating the behavioral healthcare system and promotes peer support and substance use recovery. He holds several certifications, including being a North Carolina-certified Peer Support Specialist, a Peer Support trainer, Question Persuade Refer (QPR) trainer as well as a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) facilitator. With a focus on substance use disorders and as a person in long-term recovery himself from both substance use and mental health issues, Delton is extremely passionate about addressing the stigma associated with addiction and the barriers that prevent people from getting into recovery.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.