We recently had the opportunity to hear David Sheff, author of “Beautiful Boy” and “Clean“, speak about addiction and mental health at UCLA’s Friends of the Semel Institute’s Open Mind series. Sheff is a journalist, and New York Times best-selling author who writes and speaks about addiction and recovery though the lens of a parent and as a well-researched journalist. Our family program is dedicated to approaching recovery from the eyes of the addict and those within the family system. David Sheff reminded me of the parental side of addiction and mental health that we don’t always hear.
Our kids are our babies: we see them as our innocent, silly, curious, innocent offspring. When it comes to addiction and mental health issues, parents often hang on to this ideology, telling themselves, “Not OUR kids. Addiction and mental health issues happen to other families.” There is a natural contradiction that occurs, marking the innocence parents seek to hold on to and the utter despair and devastation that is actually taking place. Addiction and mental health could care less about your financial status, race, religion, or gender, or age. What David Sheff does is talk about it. He names the elephant in the room. He invites parents to face the shadow side of addiction and mental health and bring it into the fore. He challenges us as a culture to unabashedly squash the stigma associated with addiction and mental health.
This stigma I’m talking about increases the suffering families experience around addiction and mental health. It inhibits one’s ability to move through the processes required to heal. If worry and concern about what people migt say hangs over the head of a family, how willing will they be to do the work? How frequently will they suffer in silence? How long will they go before asking for help? Shame is the muzzle of addiction.
Sheff pointed out some staggering facts:
- 80% of children will try drugs or alcohol before age 18.
- Addiction is the #3 killer
- The #1 reason teens use drugs: Stress
- 90% of addictions begin before 21
- Only 6% of pediatricians are able to recognize drug use
- There are 3000 addiction informed physicians and over 3 million addicts
But he also reminds us of this: these kids who are suffering from addiction and mental health issues aren’t bad kids; they are our kids. The focus needs to be on what is causing the use of drugs and alcohol, not the drugs and alcohol themselves. Kids are using because of stress, anxiety, social situations, trauma, et cetera. Our kids live in an environment that resembles a pressure cooker. I teach yoga to teens and tweens and I can tell you from my experiences with my students, the main reason they are there is because of stress and anxiety. And part of my work with them is teaching them tools for self-regulation.
These kids, our kids, need a reprieve from their overwhelm. Sure, drugs might offer a quick fix, but they don’t offer a solution. The solution has to come in the form of recovery, stress management and developing healthier means of self-regulation that allow for a better approach to being overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed out. If there are addiction or issues of mental health, it becomes imperative to give them a voice. Shame keeps us silent. Shame keeps us sick. Shame increases our suffering.
Dr. Tim Fong, an addiction psychiatrist at UCLA also had some salient things to say that evening, but one that really strikes home is this. Families need the following 4 things for recovery:
1. A healthy home
2. Mental and physical health
3. Sense of purpose
4. To have and build a sense of community
I encourage parents to seek help if they recognize that their child is in trouble. You are not alone in your fear, your suffering, or your need to be heard. Your child needs to be seen and heard as well, and the sooner you can get them the help they need, the sooner the recovery process can begin. Remember this: if your child has some hiccups in their recovery, YOUR recovery doesn’t have to hiccup as well.
I will leave you with this, a quote from Anne Lamott: “Never compare your insides to other people’s outsides.”