Gary Mendell founded Shatterproof, a nonprofit that combats the stigma of addiction and works to improve treatment, after his son, Brian, died of an opioid-related overdose in late 2011.
His nonprofit, which began in 2012, has testified about the addiction crisis in front of President Trump’s opioid commission and Congress. It shares resources with families touched by addiction and works with companies such as General Electric and the Hartford insurance company to educate workers and their customers about addiction.
He talked about his efforts recently with The Washington Times.
Question: What made you leave your business career and decide that a nonprofit was needed to highlight addiction and the response?
Answer: When I was able to step back and really try and understand what had happened with my son, a couple things struck me: It struck me how big and pervasive this was around the country — so many parents having to bury a child — and it also struck me that there was all this research that was sitting in peer-reviewed medical journals that had been proven, without any doubt, to be able to substantially reduce the number of our loved ones who become addicted and, for those who’d already become addicted, substantially improve outcomes in treatment. But most of this information was not being implemented.
When I asked myself why, it became clear that every major disease in this country had one well-funded national organization that was fighting to protect families against their respective diseases: American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Susan G. Komen, Autism Speaks and all the rest — and there was nothing like that for addiction. It became very clear to me, I was put on earth to form and build such an organization for addiction.
Q: Fighting stigma around addiction is a key part of your mission. How is stigma holding back the response?
A: Among those who don’t go to treatment, 20 percent say the reason they didn’t go to treatment is that they didn’t want their friends, family to know about their addiction.
Every touch point in society is, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you try harder?”
And so doctors don’t want to treat them, our society wants to throw them in jail. Because of the stigma, even though brain scans have proven beyond any doubt that addiction is a chronic brain disease, treatment has been unjustly segregated outside of the health care system.
Q: Are we overcoming it?
A: Yes, but not nearly as fast as we could. The way that you change the stigma of this disease is no different than it was for cancer or HIV/AIDS a couple decades ago. You do it by educating society and engaging the public with personal stories. That takes money and a movement.
Clearly, organizations like Shatterproof and others are beginning to do so and are making an impact, but we need more funding, more resources and more partnerships to educate society faster.
Q: President Trump declared opioids to be a public health emergency. Is that helping?
A: Clearly, it was a positive day when the president declared this a health crisis — absolutely that was a positive.
But the messaging has been inconsistent sometimes and should be clearer. When the administration talks about cracking down on traffickers, people might conflate that with criminalizing those who are simply using — which is illegal today, but throwing people into jail isn’t the answer.
Beyond messaging, the administration has been making good progress in many areas; however, more can and needs to be done to reverse the course of this epidemic.
Our health care industry continues to prescribe three times more opioids per person than Europe, and billions of dollars continue to be spent each year on treatment that is based on old beliefs, not proven research. These two facts are too tragic to adequately describe in words and cause countless to have to bury a child, can be remedied quickly, are not being done so.
Q: Some Democrats want to see a massive, $100 billion effort to stem the crisis, akin to the Ryan White effort to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. What do you think of that?
A: It’s not a question of $100 billion. It’s a question of how any money would get used. If we think about some of the remedies, some of them, not all of them, don’t cost any money. It doesn’t cost a penny for doctors to be educated on pain management and prescribing practices embedded in the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids, as a condition of being allowed to prescribe opioids.
Q: Much of the discussion around the epidemic is bad news. Can you share some success stories? What’s giving you hope?
A: There is no question that much is happening to mitigate this epidemic. There are wonderful people in many nonprofit organizations across our country doing wonderful work advocating for changes in public policies, providing naloxone and leading programs to help those addicted.
Many insurance companies are leading great efforts to reduce unnecessary opioid prescribing. Families and communities are coming together to end the stigma of addiction.
Research is being done to find alternatives to treat pain. Congress is working on legislation that will help in many ways. Federal agencies are changing regulations to prevent unnecessary prescribing. There is a lot that gives me hope today.
Q: What’s the opioids companies’ role here? What do you hope to see out of litigation against them?
A: I’m not a judge, but it looks apparent that many of the companies being sued were part of the blame.
What we hope to see out of the litigation is a cease and desist of all harmful activities and that settlement funding is used for evidence-based treatment of those who need it.
Q: What would your son want people to know about this battle?
A: The last time I saw my son was when he came home for a visit, which was four months before he died. That last night we were sitting on the back porch talking, and he looked at me and said, “I wish that people would realize I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person with a bad disease, and I’m trying my hardest.”
That’s exactly what he would want people to know.
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