Guest Commentary: Stigma kills

Changing conversations about mental health and substance abuse

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Dr. Lynn M. Morrison is president and CEO of Brandywine Counseling & Community Services.

A national tour bus is headed to Milford today — but musicians and athletes won’t be on it. Instead, a team led by Jeff Johnston — who lost both his son and his wife to substance abuse and mental health issues — will be aboard.

Stopping at the Milford location of Brandywine Counseling & Community Services, Johnston will be sharing his story of how, though his grief, he started a movement called “Living Undeterred.” He hopes to change the conversation around how we see and talk about mental health and substance abuse, and how we must create new ideas for tackling these epidemics.

And we’ve never seen epidemics like these. The numbers are staggering.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020:

  • One in 12 Americans had a substance abuse disorder.
  • One in 5 Americans experienced a mental health condition.
  • And more than 12 million Americans had serious thoughts of suicide, with one death by suicide about every 11 minutes.

The stigma that’s often associated with substance abuse and mental health challenges is something that can’t be measured, but we all know it exists in great proportion. And that has to change. Stigma kills.

But here’s the good news: The right prevention, treatment and approach can and does save lives.

Many of the clients we help are, unfortunately, not just burdened by their mental health or substance use disorders but by the stigmas placed on them by friends, family, co-workers and society at large. One of the most damaging of these stigmas is the perception of these disorders as a “weakness.”

The language we use to help break down these stigmas can make a difference in our clients’ lives and improve their treatment outcomes — if it’s also used by family, friends and other health care and social services workers they encounter.

Focusing on the person first, instead of their condition, reminds us that they’re human and emphasizes that they’re not defined by their disorder. In this way, our work is very much in line with what Johnston and Living Undeterred advocate.

We strive to show that mental health and substance use disorders are medical conditions and not a failure of morals, values or faith, and this, in turn, frees our patients to recognize this about themselves. As we work to break down stereotypes and stigmas that still remain in society, it’s vital to provide paths to reconciliation, employment and better overall health and well-being for those who struggle with disorder challenges.

Every day, we help clients regain their self-esteem and give them a real chance at a new life. Our mantra is “change is good”; and we have seen how “living undeterred” can be a real life changer.

Editor’s note: The Living Undeterred presentation will be held at 6 p.m. at Brandywine Counseling and Community Services Inc.’s Milford facility. You can find more information here.