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EDITORIAL: One father's laudable effort to destroy a harmful stigma

Daily Oklahoman - 9/25/2018

Sept. 25--email

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GARY Mendell's story isn't unique, and he's doing what he can to make that point to parents across the country. We need more folks like Mendell -- people who are comfortable talking about mental illness and substance abuse.

Mendell founded a nonprofit called Shatterproof, after losing his son Brian to suicide at 25 in 2011. Brian Mendell had struggled with addiction for nearly 10 years. Shatterproof, as is explained on its website (www.shatterproof.org), is dedicated "to ending the devastation addiction causes families."

Devastation is the right word -- as Mendell notes, 22 million people (and, by extension, their families) are afflicted with the brain disease his son had. In Oklahoma, our prisons are filled with men and women addled by substance abuse and mental illness. In the past 12 years, the number of people who have died in Oklahoma from oxycodone and hydrocodone has quadrupled.

Mendell, one of the featured speakers at an addiction forum last week sponsored by The Oklahoman, said that as his son struggled with addiction, he thought he had raised a child with a character flaw. Mendell and his wife talked about their son with few people; they didn't know where to go to find help.

Consequently, "Brian just found silence," Mendell said. "Stigma extinguishes the very hope and self-respect people with this disease need" to overcome their addiction.

On his website, Mendell says it's "an undeniable reality" that it wasn't solely addiction that took his son's life. Instead, "It was the shame he felt every morning when he opened his eyes that led him to wake up that morning, research suicide notes, light a candle and take his own life, alone."

Mendell strives to break down the stigma related to substance abuse and mental illness, and more power to him. As we have written many times, it's rare when family members, after losing a loved one to suicide, will acknowledge as much to those outside the immediate family. It's too painful.

Yet such deaths are not uncommon. Oklahoma's suicide rate is the eighth-highest in the country.

Mendell found after his son's passing that as many as 10 percent of people have a substance use disorder at some point in their lives. Nearly nine out of 10 who become addicted began experimenting with substances before turning 18, when their brains were still developing.

Mendell also learned that there are medications and therapies that are successful against opioid addiction, but they aren't offered by many treatment programs. "How could we have something so big, that's mostly about our children ... and it's being stigmatized and not used?" he said.

A former hotel industry executive, Mendell has made Shatterproof his life's work. He sees it as "the American Cancer Society of addiction," noting that every major disease in the United States has a well-funded national organization -- but not addiction.

Perhaps someday. In the meantime, here's hoping his message gives someone the courage to seek help -- to talk about what they or their loved one is going through or has gone through. We must obliterate the stigma associated with this issue.

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(c)2018 The Oklahoman

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