Mclean Hospital

Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction

August 14, 2019

Addiction doesn’t discriminate.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you are from, how much money you make, or how famous you are—addiction can affect anyone.

Stigma also doesn’t discriminate. It has the power to dissuade people of all backgrounds from getting the mental health help they need.

Knowing that stigma is the greatest barrier to people seeking care for mental health and addiction issues, in 2016, McLean Hospital launched Deconstructing Stigma (DS), an international education campaign focused on improving understanding about behavioral and substance use disorders.

Told through the eyes of its participants through personal stories and larger-than-life images, Deconstructing Stigma tears down the misconceptions of what those with mental illness look like. The volunteers in this project are more than just statistics or nameless faces. They are mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, lawyers, doctors, engineers, musicians, and more. Each one has been affected by mental illness.

Each volunteer has a unique story. Yet all the stories have a common thread. All the participants have been impacted by mental health stigma.

Hidden Pain

One of the participants is Darryl McDaniels. Also known as DMC, Darryl is a founding member of the legendary hip-hop group Run-DMC.

From outward appearances, Darryl seemed to have everything a person could want. What the public couldn’t see was that depression and a dangerous amount of alcohol use were destroying his spirit and his body.

“I had everything—I was the King of Rock,” said Darryl. “We were touring, making money, and everyone knew who we were. But I didn’t feel right, and not a day passed that I didn’t think about suicide.”

Looking back, Darryl remembers being a nerdy kid in school—a shy boy who wore glasses and loved to lose himself in comic books. As a teen he became a regular in the hip-hop scene. His popularity as a young rap artist grew, but so did his anxiety and his reliance on alcohol to get out on stage to perform. By the time Darryl and his group were household names, he was downing a dozen 40-ounce bottles of beer a day.

“The first time I performed in front of an actual audience, I was so scared that I couldn’t face the crowd. I used alcohol to overcome that fear and eventually alcohol took over my life.”

After an emergency room doctor warned that he was heading down a very dark path, Darryl immediately quit drinking and remained sober for more than a decade. However, the startling news that he was adopted sent him into a deep depression and once again, he turned to alcohol to cope. This time Darryl entered a treatment facility and began to address not only his reliance on alcohol, but also his lifelong feelings of depression and anxiety.

“I finally understood that I wasn’t the only one who felt this type of despair—I wanted to shout out to everyone ‘Hey, I’m not crazy for feeling this way!’”

Deconstructing Stigma participant Darryl
Participants like Darryl are helping McLean break through the stigma of mental health

Today, Darryl is back in the recording studio, has a best-selling book about his experience with mental illness, and has become a vocal mental health advocate.

“By being open about my own experiences, I am opening a pathway for other people to know they aren’t alone. If you’re not feeling right—whether you are depressed, suicidal, or drinking too much—there is always someone in your life who will listen and be willing to help you. Just start talking about your feelings. We all have them.”

Nobody Is Immune

One of the reasons that we invited celebrities to participate in Deconstructing Stigma is to help demonstrate that addiction and other forms of mental illness can affect anyone. Appearances may not reflect what’s going on inside.

Likewise, our participant Wayne showed us that being tough on the outside doesn’t mean that you’re not vulnerable.

While serving in a high-stress, high-responsibility role as a corrections officer, Wayne developed a serious problem with alcohol, and he knew he needed help to overcome it.

“My alcoholism was getting worse and worse, until I was totally depending on it to function,” said Wayne. “I was losing myself and justifying it in my own head. When I started to believe my own lies, that’s when the mental illness set in. And when I tried to quit on my own, it showed.”

Wayne entered a detox program, but within 48 hours, he was hallucinating and suffering from DTs. He then fell into a nine-day coma that nearly cost him his life. Soon after, he was admitted to McLean Hospital’s LEADER program. Specifically designed to help police, active-duty military, and first responders deal with mental health and addiction issues, LEADER was the ideal place for Wayne.

“I needed a medical detox because I couldn’t do it on my own. The doctors and staff in the LEADER program helped me through that. They always followed up, and they helped me make healthy choices. Also, it helped to be with other people like me—first responders, other correctional staff. It made it very relatable.”

Wayne has been sober for more than five years, and today, he’s helping others. He serves as a captain at his correctional facility, and he makes sure to support his fellow corrections officers who may be going through tough times.

“I, along with other officers, run a peer support group at the prison. We help and guide the employees when dealing with sensitive situations that unfortunately arise with this kind of career. I use myself as an example. I explain how humbling it was to be one of the guys’ guys working at a prison, being part of the tactical team for several years, and having to go to rehab because I couldn’t control my drinking. I tell them that I couldn’t push it away, so I decided to own it. I tell them where I went during my dark time—and that when I said, ‘I can’t live like this,’ things started to get better.”

Helping others and talking about his past struggles serves a kind of self-therapy for Wayne, but his recovery involves far more than talk. He lifts weights, focuses on nutrition, and he recently took up blacksmithing to make his own knives. Wayne believes that committing to personal interests and activities can truly help people struggling with mental health issues and addiction.

“Whether it’s music, gardening, painting, exercise—don’t lose that. Alcohol and depression go hand in hand, and when you allow things you once enjoyed to take a back seat due to drinking, it’s like closing a window and blocking out the light and fresh air. Start opening up those windows, start going back to the things that you enjoy. After I got sober, I opened up all my windows again, and I found some new ones.”

Changing Attitudes About Mental Health

In 2016, McLean Hospital launched DS. This global mental health awareness initiative aims to expand public understanding and diminish the stigma associated with psychiatric disorders.

Since its inception, the campaign has focused on using storytelling to bring communities and cultures together around a single topic: mental health and its impact. Starting with an initial physical installation at Boston Logan International Airport, DS uses a series of larger-than-life photographs and compelling narratives of individuals who have been affected by psychiatric conditions to boldly challenge the misconceptions regarding mental illness.

DS has served to launch McLean’s education outreach program. Through outreach we continue to leverage and grow DS while also developing additional public education programming and intervention curricula that increase understanding about mental illness and encourage compassion for individuals and families directly affected by these disorders.

Would you like to share your mental health story? Is your organization ready to partner with us to fight mental health stigma? Learn more at deconstructingstigma.org.