First Lady fights to end addiction stigma

Personal stories of addiction can help others in need

JOEY NESS | PHOTO COURTESY
Recovery Reinvented Event hosted by Governor Doug Burgum and First Lady Kathryn Helgass Burgum

First lady, Kathryn Burgum, discussed the stigma associated with addiction and the third Recovery Reinvented taking place Nov. 12 at the Bismarck Event Center.

Burgum herself has struggled with addiction in the past and now focuses on fighting the stigma associated with the disease of addiction.

“Just by opening that door, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Burgum said when talking about her own experiences. “I felt a lot of freedom just being able to say that doesn’t define who I am and it doesn’t define my future.”

“The thing I’ve been most grateful for is the number of people who have reached out. Sometimes it’s not really about helping yourself, it’s about helping other people. People could be saving lives just by telling their own stores,” Burgum added.

Along with her own story, people will get to hear the stories of others at this year’s Recovery Reinvented as well.

The conference will host three national and local speakers who will share their personal stories dealing with addiction. Burgum mentioned that a lot of the speakers are in recovery themselves, which will be inspiring for others struggling.

She elaborated on how the public speakers will create a different narrative on how people will view those with addiction. “I think that’s what the stigma does. People with addiction are homeless or helpless and they don’t want to change their lives. It’s (the speakers) are really creating a different narrative.”

Something new that will be used in the upcoming conference is selfie videos. People from across the state are being asked to send a video sharing their experiences with addiction and how they are reinventing recovery.

“They can be the faces and voices of recovery or just the faces and voices of those who struggle with addiction,” Burgum said. “It’s so powerful to hear someone’s own journey of a struggle.”

“It’s those inspirational stories that will encourage people to reach out for help or encourage people to talk more about addiction and recovery which is really the best way to eliminate stigma.”

Along with the personal experiences, a recovery expo will be at the conference offering resources for those struggling with addiction or anyone who knows someone that’s struggling. Burgum explained that a lot of people who attend are interested in finding resources not only for themselves but for people they personally know need help.

All the organizations that will be at the expo will are also listed online for people to view in case they can’t make it.

Awards will also be handed out recognizing those who are making an impact on their community. In the past, awards have been given to the youth, innovations and trailblazers who are making a difference to end the stigma.

Regarding whether she feels the Recovery Reinvented conference is changing people’s opinions, Burgum responded, “I believe we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Burgum went into detail about how many people have attended the conference. About 500 people were projected at their first conference while 1,000 people were projected to have attended last year. This year Bugum expects there to be more than 1,000 attendees.

“We’re engaging more people, more people are interested in learning what they can do to help eliminate the stigma so that’s one way to gauge progress,” Burgum said.

After the first conference in 2017, a survey was conducted to determine the addiction stigma level in North Dakota. The results from the survey showed that 63 percent of North Dakotans view addiction as a disease while 37 percent think addiction is a “Choice or a moral failing,” as Burgum stated.

“We’re focusing on trying to reach those one in three people to try and see if we can change their mind.”

Though social media can be used negatively, Burgum discussed how it can help spread awareness and educating people on the chronic disease of addiction.

She also talked about how her team is reaching out to corporate America since many employees aren’t having discussions in the workplace about addiction.

They are reaching out to the chamber of commerce and law enforcement as well to have a conversation about addiction without any bias involved.

When asked why everyone, even those not affected by addiction, should care about ending the stigma, Burgum explained everyone should consider being an advocate to help those who are struggling.

“Sometimes it’s not really about helping yourself, it’s about helping other people”

First Lady Kathryn Burgum

“There’s are a lot of people out there who think addiction is a moral failure or choice,” Burgum said.

“Let’s get off that list of the drunkest states in the nation and on the list of being the biggest advocates for change and helping people with the disease of addiction.”

Since the first Recovery Reinvented, a program called youth ending stigma which has reached out to middle and high schools all over the state of North Dakota to create young advocates to fight the addiction stigma.

Regarding whether North Dakota has enough resources offered to those dealing with addiction, Burgum looked at it on multiple levels.

Burgum talked about how Alcohol Anonymous (AA) meetings are sometimes the only resources needed by individuals on the path to recovery. These meetings can be found in just about every city across the world.

Others struggling with addiction need treatment to start on the path to recovery which can be a problem if they live in a rural area like the western part of North Dakota.

Burgum pointed out that treatment services and centers aren’t readily available to those living in small towns.

With this in mind, Burgum talked about a new initiative where people are being trained as peer support specialists. Within this program people who have experience with behavioral health, which includes mental health and addiction, are trained to be mentors for those who need help.

This can become a career path for those who go through the program as Burgum and her team are trying to make a certification so the peer support specialists can open their own business and get paid.

The program was approved in the last legislative session through Medicaid, meaning insurance would cover the costs of those getting the service.

Along with the topic of addiction, North Dakota is one of many states to sue Purdue Pharma, a company that is believed to have contributed to the 2016 opioid crisis.

Burgum gave her thoughts on how impactful she feels the lawsuits will be. “I think that from the standpoint of awareness of how opioids can affect people is really important and these lawsuits elevate that.”

Another topic Burgum touched on was how resources can help college students as well.

Burgum described how binge drinking is a problem many college campuses deal with. Creating groups available for students to have meaningful conversations about addiction on campuses are needed.

North Dakota State University has a group called the Bison Recovery Community through the counseling center that offers a safe place students can go to discuss their recovery stories and progress. The group also fights the stigma that tends to silence individuals who are dealing with addiction.

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