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2017 McLean Award Honoree Elizabeth Vargas Speaks Out Against Stigma

August 21, 2017 Print

Emmy award-winning journalist and television news anchor Elizabeth Vargas accepted the 2017 McLean Award at the hospital’s annual dinner on June 13. The McLean Award is given annually to an individual who has substantially raised public awareness and furthered the public’s understanding of behavioral and mental health issues.

Ms. Vargas’ career spans multiple continents and decades, with her covering breaking news stories, reporting in-depth investigations, and conducting extensive interviews with world newsmakers. From the horror of the Orlando nightclub shooting to the heroics of the NICU nurses of Hurricane Sandy and from heartbreaking coverage of refugees fleeing ISIS in Iraq to the deaths of boxing icon Muhammad Ali and pop star Prince, Ms. Vargas’ professional work is a collage of intelligent, thoughtful, and impactful news stories.

Elizabeth Vargas with Carol Vallone
Elizabeth Vargas and McLean Trustee Carol Vallone with the 2017 McLean Award

“Elizabeth’s reporting displays the highest standards of integrity and quality—and the recurring themes of human rights and compassion for the most vulnerable are prominent,” said Scott L. Rauch, MD, president and psychiatrist in chief at McLean. “Her efforts to raise awareness about issues surrounding behavioral and mental health have already had a profound impact.”

Vargas’ childhood was beset by anxiety stemming partly from her father’s deployment during the Vietnam War. She suffered from daily, debilitating panic attacks that went unacknowledged and untreated into adulthood. Vargas told the audience that she “white knuckled it” throughout high school and college by trying to suppress her intense anxiety.

“In the workforce, I was introduced to wine,” said Vargas. “Finally, I thought, this works! I felt more secure, more interesting, and much less anxious.”

It took decades of daily drinking before Vargas lost control.

“I nearly lost everything,” Vargas said. “I nearly lost my children. I nearly lost my job. I nearly lost my life.”

In 2014, Vargas revealed both her alcoholism and her anxiety disorder on national television. While she admits that her initial motive for public disclosure was an effort to be in control of her story, it has now become her mission to diffuse stigma through open and honest dialogue.

“The darkest chapters in my life have turned out to be the most gratifying,” said Vargas. “I am grateful if sharing my story has made even one other person feel less alone and more able to raise a hand and ask for help.”

Her book Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction was an instant New York Times and USA Today best seller. Telling her story publicly has been a part of her recovery process, along with meditation, gratitude, and a deep sense of spirituality.

Vargas accepted the 2017 McLean Award from McLean Trustee Carol Vallone who noted Vargas’ humility and candor and said, “You are educating everybody, destigmatizing these issues, and inspiring others to seek help. Thank you.”