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The Elephant in the Room

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September is National Recovery Month. For those who find the month-long dedication to recovery something to scoff at, listen up. It's a step in the right direction.

Veterans dealing with substance abuse and PTSD suffer as much from stigma as they do from these very real illnesses. Much has been written on this topic of addiction and stigma among our vets, yet the elephant is still sitting square in the middle of the room. The admonitions to resist such prejudice have been unrelenting and consistent.

Despite efforts from psychiatrists, clinicians, those in recovery, the military and veterans alike, the stigma persists. Why do we conjure up negative images when we hear the words "addiction," "mental illness" or "trauma"? Why do we automatically label these people and slot them in that "other" category, when their illness is only a part of what defines them? What will it take to begin moving us, as a society, toward acceptance?

Stigma is born of fear. As humans we often fear what we can't control and what we don't understand. This is understandable, yet despite all the evidenced-based data that confirms addiction is a disease and mental health issues are illnesses, stigma remains rooted in our culture. Nearly every person I have ever met either has a family member or close friend who suffers from addiction. Still, addiction, drug abuse, alcoholism and PTSD send up red flags. Why?

The simple fact is addiction is a disease. In April 2011, The American Society of Addiction Medicine adopted a new definition of addiction after a four-year study involving more than 80 experts. In short:

"Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one's behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death."

A memorable commercial from several years ago resonates today. It depicts a young man, obviously homeless and drug-addled. At the end of the spot you hear, "No one ever says 'when I grow up I want to be an addict.'" No, they do not. No one wants a life in despair and ruins. It is by the sheer grace of God that the rest of us are not ravaged by these illnesses.

When I speak with people about our foundation, Veterans Healing Initiative, and talk about our work providing veterans access to treatment for addiction and trauma, invariably at least one person in the room comes forward and shares a personal story -- either their own or of someone they love. They applaud our work and support our mission. However, we continue to find it difficult to raise funds for our work. Responses range from "we don't support that kind of thing" to "we only support family programs or programs for wounded -- physically-wounded -- veterans."

While we live in a very giving and charitable country, we have in many ways become less kind to one another. Whether the discussion is politics, healthcare, relationships, education, social welfare or mental illness, we seem to be losing our capacity to be compassionate and tolerant. To be sure, countless organizations work tirelessly to move the needle toward the positive. But the strong undercurrent of judgment remains.

We must embrace those in need. Our military troops and veterans suffer in painful numbers from addiction and trauma. They, along with anyone else suffering from these illnesses, need a soft landing. They need to know that coming forward leads not toward disaster, but toward freedom. For all those who have been brave enough to step forward and seek help regardless of your fear, we applaud you.

To be sure, we all bear responsibility for our own health. But the addicted do not bear the responsibility of rising above the objections of society and boldly marching forward announcing to the world they are in trouble and need help. Those of us who have been genuinely blessed with good health need to step up and say, "We get it. We understand and we can help."

Enough to the judgment, the bias and the assumptions. To those who suffer from addiction and trauma: If you do your part, so will we.

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