THE BLOG
08/22/2014 12:33 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

Depression and Addiction: We Must Break the Stigmas

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Depression runs in my family.

I didn't know that for a long time. But once I found out, it was a relief of sorts, because a light bulb went off in my head, and I suddenly had an explanation for some difficult things that were going on in my world. It explained things that were happening to my son and, later on, things that were happening to me.

My son was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety disorder at the age of 15.

He had been a pretty happy, "normal" kid growing up, but he slipped into an inexplicable emotional funk in his early high school years. He was sad, withdrawn, and struggled with everyday life. It was heartbreaking to watch. It got to the point where he couldn't even get out of bed to go to school.

This was the start of a roller coaster ride of depression and addiction for our son and our family. We didn't know it back then, but the next several years of our lives would be a living hell and the ultimate test for my wife and I as parents.

Fortunately, we eventually got our son into therapy and, after several tries, his doctors finally found an anti-depressant that was effective for him. (Note: The first anti-depressant someone is prescribed isn't always effective. It can take some trial and error to find the right medication. Not giving up during this period is key.)

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Let me share some information with you:

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older -- about one in four adults -- suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people ... In addition, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada. Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. Nearly half (45 percent) of those with any mental disorder meet criteria for two or more disorders.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

Approximately 8.9 million adults have co-occurring disorders; that is they have both a mental and substance use disorder ... Only 7.4 percent of individuals receive treatment for both conditions with 55.8 percent receiving no treatment at all.

Those numbers are absolutely staggering. And the figures that boggle my mind the most are the ones pertaining to people suffering from co-occurring disorders (a mental disorder and a substance use problem):

"Only 7.4 percent of individuals receive treatment for both conditions with 55.8 percent receiving no treatment at all."

That, to me, is inexcusable.

Why are co-occurring disorders (COD) so common among substance abusers? Because people suffering from depression, mood disorders, bipolar disorder, anxiety and panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, and the like frequently turn to drugs to self-medicate themselves in hopes of feeling "normal."

That was the case with my son. His depression and anxiety were eating him alive, so he turned to marijuana, prescription drugs that weren't his and, eventually, heroin. But his goal wasn't to become an addict. He just wanted to escape his negative feelings and try to feel like he thought he was supposed to.

The reason so many people don't get the treatment they need is simple: Mental illness and addiction are still shrouded in stigma. It's 2014, but people suffering from mental illness often times don't want to ask for professional help because they fear being labeled as "crazy" or a "whack job." They keep their negative feelings bottled up inside and struggle through life on a daily basis, never knowing the happiness or normalcy they are capable of experiencing.

When you look at addiction specifically, the statistics are equally disappointing.

According to Heroes in Recovery:

While 23 million people each year need help for addiction, only 3 million actually seek treatment.

The stigma associated with addiction is overwhelming for millions of Americans. So again, people keep suffering through their day-to-day lives because they're afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed to reach out for help.

We need to break the stigma associated with all mental health disorders -- including addiction -- so that people can feel comfortable seeking help. They need to know that it's okay to feel what they're feeling. That they're not some kind of freak. That they're not alone but one of millions of people with the same condition. They need to know that it's okay to talk about their feelings with a professional and their family and friends, because talking to people helps. They need to know that properly prescribed and physician-monitored medication can help, too. Most importantly, though, they need to know that their lives can be happy and enjoyable again.

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Yes, depression runs in my family. And I have it, too.

I struggled with it for years, primarily after my son's diagnosis and the start of his addiction issues. I felt sad, alone, and worthless. It was horrible. But I finally found the courage to seek treatment, found the right anti-depressant (after trying a few that didn't work), and started to feel better again. Much better.

Today I still feel better. So does my son. His depression is under control, he's enjoying life and he's been clean and sober for more than two years. Our day-to-day lives are no longer filled with negativity and hopelessness. Sure, we have bad days once in a while, but that's just life, and we've learned to deal with it. The difference now is that a bad day is just that: a bad day. The sadness no longer lasts for months or years.

"Everyone needs help. That's the human condition." -- Max Allan Collins

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Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.