The drug epidemic continues to take lives nationwide, with an estimated 175 people dying from a drug-related overdose every day. But in the midst of the addiction crisis stand individuals and organizations who are demanding change. Their efforts are turning the tides to eliminate the stigma of addiction and implement effective standards and policies.
Gary Mendell is the epitome of what a father’s love can do. At age 13, Gary’s son, Brian, tried marijuana and soon moved onto other drugs. He became addicted. But an additional burden weighed heavy on Brian’s heart: the stigma toward those struggling with substance abuse. “Three hundred years ago they burned women on stakes in Salem, Massachusetts because they thought they were witches. Someday society will recognize that I have a disease, and I am trying my hardest,” Brian once told his father. After thirteen months of sobriety, Brian took his own life. Gary believes a main reason was because Brian was ashamed of his addiction.
Seeking to prevent other families from losing their loved ones due to the shame of addiction, Gary founded Shatterproof, a community organization that is dedicated to implementing lifesaving changes. The organization created the National Principles of Care – a set of guidelines for addiction treatment, backed by proven research – and now 16 primary healthcare payers are implementing this system as the standard. Shatterproof’s advocacy has facilitated access to the anti-overdose medication naloxone in 15 states and fortified the monitoring of prescription drugs. Shatterproof also provides educational and supportive resources through their Community Alliance program. Gary Mendell and Shatterproof work every day to shatter the stigma of addiction.
In the 1990s, Ryan Hampton worked as a White House aide to President Bill Clinton. Years later, he found himself struggling with a crippling opioid addiction after being prescribed painkillers for a minor injury. Over time, his prescription pill misuse progressed into a full-blown heroin addiction. At that point, Ryan felt so ashamed that he would have rather died than ask for help and reveal his secret. Luckily, Ryan did seek treatment and has been sober since February 2, 2015. Ryan has now aligned his political background with his passion for ending the addiction crisis.
Through his activism, Ryan emphasizes the importance of eliminating the stigma of addiction. He believes in the power of banding together the one in three households affected by the addiction epidemic. Ryan has urged the masses to register to vote as recovery-oriented, single-issue voters, stating, “Imagine the political power we would have if we organized, if we voted, if we ran for office. We would get funding, legislation, and common-sense solutions in place and end this nightmare overnight.” Ryan is front and center in the recovery advocacy movement, changing the national dialog that surrounds addiction.
Joseph Green’s spoken word art pulls at the heartstrings and broadens the conversation about addiction by drawing from personal experience. After grappling with addiction himself, and losing his friend to the disease, he shares his lessons learned with whoever is willing to listen. In his poem Talk Ugly, Green shares the last memory he had with his dear friend, and his wish that he would have talked sense into his loved one. Green expresses that he would have reached out to his friend in need, but because he was high, he had no foresight. “The last time I saw you alive I wish I would have talked ugly to you. It would have been the most beautiful thing – I never said,” Green recites. Green posits that through telling his vulnerable stories, others can begin to find comfort in sharing their truths on the basis of connectivity. His work breaks down the barriers that surround addiction and inspires young people to speak about their experiences.
Brett Bramble is a true example of a family man’s strength and courage. Brett struggled with substance abuse at a young age and engaged in crime. But through the love of his family, Brett realized that he could no longer go down that dark path. Brett was put on probation and got sober. But soon after he turned his life around, his sister Brittany became addicted to prescription opioids after giving birth to three boys. Her back pain was unbearable, and the painkillers gave her temporary relief. Her family was shocked when Brittany overdosed on heroin, as they thought she was using prescription medications under her doctor’s care. Brittany had stated that she wanted help, but a few weeks later, she overdosed – and this time, it was fatal. Two years after losing Brittany, Brett decided to shine a light on the addiction crisis. During a span of eight months, Brett walked 3,200 miles, telling his sister’s story from Delaware to the Pacific Ocean. Brett’s awe-inspiring efforts have influenced hundreds of thousands of individuals.
One thing is for certain: addiction is taking too many lives. Whether it’s another law implemented, an emotional message communicated, or a mile walked, real, meaningful change is necessary. These four individuals and the masses they inspire are dedicated to making this hope a reality.