November 6, 2015 — A week ago Gov. Chris Christie, R-NJ, spoke with great passion about addiction. In a now-viral video, Christie told of his law school pal who lost everything including his life from addiction to prescription painkillers and alcohol. The Republican presidential candidate opened his talk explaining his late mother’s cigarette habit, which ultimately led to lung cancer and her death. He said that no one questioned her treatment or made judgments about her, but individuals who become addicted are subject to the scorn and hostility of others.
Later in the week, Christie told ABC’s Jake Tapper:
“This could happen to anyone, Jake. Regardless of your education level, regardless of your socio-economic status. It could happen to anyone,” Christie said. “And so, I think what we have to do in this country is start to acknowledge that and say yes, it was a bad choice to use drugs. We’re going to continue to tell our kids and everyone not to use them… But haven’t we all made bad choices in our life? And we’re just fortunate that it didn’t involve an addiction to drugs or alcohol.”
I was taken by his openness and his humanity, and followed the coverage closely all week.
Was I surprised to hear Patrick Kennedy, of the staunchly Democratic Kennedy family, affirm and support what Christie said. Former Congressman Kennedy, who says he has been sober for seven years, battled alcoholism and drug addiction for most of his life. He crashed his car near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in 2006, and entered rehab a day later. Since leaving politics, Kennedy has devoted his life to a message of sobriety.
“They’re going to rush out, if they’re in a Republican primary, they’re going to vote for Chris Christie. This has a powerful political constituency that isn’t measured by any poll,” he said.
The Last Stigma. This is a small anecdote in a sea of news and information about the prevalence of addiction and its cousin mental illness in our society. It may be the only issue on which people of all political stripes find common ground. It is perhaps the last stigma, the last dirty little secret we don’t want to share.
I work in a psychiatric hospital that provides crisis stabilization treatment for individuals with addiction and mental illness. I am convinced that addiction and mental illness are among several societal ills that undergird our progress as a nation. The greater good is harmed if we cannot find a way to beat back this demon.
Here are some of the chilling statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). You can find your own state here.
Addiction and Mental Illness in the Hoosier State. The SAMHSA data is quite comprehensive so I’m picking out a few snapshots from my own state to share. I hope discussions like the one that came out of Christie’s viral video will lead to substantial change in attitude and funding. These snapshots come directly from the 2014 State Behavioral Health report.
- In Indiana, about 382,000 individuals aged 12 or older (7.1% of all individuals in this age group) per year in 2009–2013* were dependent on or abused alcohol within the year prior to being surveyed. The percentage did not change significantly over this period.
- In Indiana, about 207,000 adults (4.3% of all adults) in 2009–2013* had serious thoughts of suicide within the year prior to being surveyed. The percentage did not change significantly over this period.
- In Indiana, about 253,000 adults (5.3% of all adults) per year in 2009–2013* had Serious Mental Illness within the year prior to being surveyed.
- In Indiana, about 150,000 individuals aged 12 or older (2.8% of all individuals in this age group) per year in 2009–2013* were dependent on or abused illicit drugs within the year prior to being surveyed. The percentage did not change significantly over this period.
It’s easy to read dry statistics in a white paper. Each statistic is a person, your son-in-law, your aunt, your mother, your friend from church, bridge club, or Saturday afternoon bowling.
My family has experienced mental illness and probably addiction for many generations. There, I said it. Though every morning when I read the call log at work, I am taken aback by what what twin ugly diseases alcoholism and mental illness are. There’s a meme I often see on Facebook that I’ll paraphrase, something like (fill-in-the-blank) addiction or mental illness affects not just one person, but the whole family. If it hasn’t hit your family, you are not special, you are just lucky.
So, what’s my point?
I have a call to action.
- Judge not. If there is someone in your life who needs help, get them help. Don’t judge them or shame them. We’ve all made mistakes. We don’t shame people who have cancer.
- Vote. Research before you vote and find out if your candidate supports mental health and addiction issues. Congressman Tim Murphy has been a leader in government about getting help for issues with mental illness and addiction.
- Volunteer. Your community no doubt has chapters and events that support addiction treatment and mental health issues. In our community are blessed with a Substance Abuse Council, a Suicide Prevention group, Mental Health America, NAMI, and others.