“Dad, I’m not a bad person,” Gary Mendall’s son Brian told him while he was in treatment for his addiction. Mendell is the founder of a national nonprofit organization called Shatterproof, and he shared Brian’s story at a public forum called “Moving Beyond Stigma.” Stigma has a powerful role in the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery associated with addiction and mental illness — so powerful that nationwide many of the estimated 22 million who are now addicted don’t seek services because they are ashamed.

Gary Mendell choked up several times in his keynote address talking about his son at the recent conference. Stigma isolated his entire family as they coped with Brian’s ongoing struggle to get well. It was especially devastating, he said, to see Brian demeaned for his illness at the same time another young man he knew was embraced and supported because he was diagnosed with something else — cancer. Both diseases, but two vastly different responses.

“Moving Beyond Stigma” gathered researchers, support groups, business leaders, and treatment experts in a day-long conversation about the role of personal, social and institutional stigma. I was there to lead a discussion with experts working in treatment and research programs. The goal: to lay bare the myths and misunderstandings about addiction. Two stand out: Experts point to data which confirms chemical brain changes from the overuse of addictive substances like opioids. Substance use disorder is a disease, they say, just like heart disease or diabetes. It is not — as many continue to believe — the result of a character flaw or a lack of willpower.  

Secondly, they emphasized that African-Americans and Latinos in the inner cities with substance use disorder have the same disease as the white kids from the suburbs. Many acknowledged that public empathy has increased because young, mostly opioid addicts, have become the new face of addiction. But, in heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story, the speakers described how the disease crosses all boundaries of race, gender and class.

William James College sponsored the anti-stigma conference. The Newton-based college trains psychologists who will likely work with victims of substance use disorder. College president Nicholas Covino has been personally touched by the disease of addiction. His nephew died from an overdose. Dr. Covino, who is also a practicing psychologist, was passionate as he talked about how the humiliation attached to the disease can lead to dangerous denial, saying, “It’s always somebody’s else’s problem and we have to recognize it’s a serious problem.” Several national studies suggest that more than two thirds of American families are affected by addiction and its stigma. The shame and disparagement is literally the difference between life and death.