Article

Damn Those Stigmas

Scenes from the UNITE to Face Addiction Rally in Washington, D.C.

My wife’s words rang through my head, at times louder than the music: “Damn those stigmas.”

As parents of a child who has mental health issues, one of our largest fears is that she will use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Mental health and substance abuse are linked in another way, through the stigmas that prevent many people from talking about them openly and publicly — as the illnesses they are, not just the poor choices we make.

A new organization, Facing Addiction, is working to change that perception. And they took a huge step with UNITE to Face Addiction, a five-hour rally and concert that drew thousands from across the U.S. to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Described as the first of its kind, the rally featured a terrific lineup of performers who cut across genres and generations. Featured were Steven TylerSheryl CrowJoe WalshJason IsbellThe FrayJohn Rzeznik of The Goo Goo Dolls, Jonathan Butler and Tommy Sims, who wrote “Change the World.” All have faced substance abuse issues or been affected by someone close who faced addiction.

The audience, a vast majority of them recovering addicts or people who had lost a loved one, slowly grew throughout the damp and dreary day. Many carried signs with pictures of loved ones who had been lost to addiction; others were there because they are in long-term recovery. They cheered each of the artists, but individual songs or performers brought many to tears, especially when The Fray — a personal highlight, along with Isbell — performed “How to Save a Life.”

Facing Addiction, a recently formed organization that has been working to focus attention on the cause, organized the rally. Officials with the organization say addiction affects one in three households and 85 million people in the U.S. It also cuts across all class, socioeconomic, and racial lines.

Among the speakers: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy; Michael Botticelli, a recovering addict who now is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; and syndicated talk-show host and surgeon Mehmet Oz. Others included Emmy Award-winning actress Allison Janney, whose role in the sitcom “Mom” drew loud cheers; and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who is battling a family legacy of substance abuse and mental illness.

The biggest piece of news at the event was when Murthy, surrounded by three of his top staff, announced that his office has commissioned the first-ever Surgeon General’s report on alcoholism and addiction.

And the numbers are there to justify it: Overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in people under 50. Stigma or not, that is a sobering fact.

Damn those stigmas.

Glenn Cook is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Northern Virginia. For individual galleries of the performers, go to the Performances section. For a photographic overview of the event, go to my Facebook photo page.