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Beat the stigma: How to find help if you're struggling

The pandemic caused a rise in overdoses and those fighting substance use disorders. Doctors want patients to know they are not alone.

CLEVELAND — Aaron Marks' story echoes thousands of others.

"I was young and I got prescribed Vicoprofen for an oral surgery that I had, wisdom teeth being removed," he says. "But for me, it kind of, like, grabbed hold of me, and within a really short period of time, I became addicted to them."

Unfortunately, like many, Aaron's addiction escalated.

“Next thing you know, I'm alone," he recalled, "and I'm an IV drug user within a short period of time."

Dr. Patrick Runnels is the director of public and community psychiatry as well as the chief medical officer for Population/Behavioral Health at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. He has seen dozens of cases similar to Aaron's, and he wants people to understand something.

"Substance disorders are common," Runnels said, "and you are not alone."

Aaron's family and friends worried about him. Runnels wants people in similar situations to understand something else.

"It never hurts to ask someone that you love, 'How are you doing?'" Runnels explained. "'I'm worried about you and I want to talk about something I've noticed.'"

Fortunately, Aaron heard his family's concerns, and when he was ready, he knew he had a lifeline.  

"When things really hit bottom, I was able to pick up the phone and call and ask for help," he said.

However, it can take time for someone to come to that point where they are ready for help.

"Every single person is different," Aaron admitted, "and every single person responds differently to everything."

"When people get engaged with treatment, they tend to do well," Runnels added. "The biggest problem we have is getting people engaged in treatment."

But there are efforts to make it easier. This summer, the national 988 mental health helpline opened as a portal to resources.

"I want to be very clear: It's a number people can use for substance use, disorder problems, or mental illness problems of any kind," Runnels said.

If you or a loved one might need help, Runnels advises keeping a list of local resources and making that first call, even if it's just for information.

"I often say to people, 'Take the first next step,'" he noted. "It's hard to know where this journey is going to go, but it never hurts to go sit down with someone and just get an assessment."

The pandemic showed us a glaring need for more mental health professionals, and Runnels says telehealth is a convenient option.

"Virtual health has and is largely able to accomplish, in the world of mental health and substance use disorders, a lot of what we could do in person," he told us. "It is often a perfectly viable model for a lot of things."

But in times of crisis, there's help, too.

"If your needs are on the more dire side, if they can't wait, almost every provider is figuring out ways to get those people in and prioritize those people," Runnels said.

Aaron now has 18 years of recovery. He has a wife, a successful career, a strong support network, and uses his experience to help others and "beat the stigma.

"I'm not ashamed of my experience," he said. "I don't hide from my experience. I wear it as openly, as comfortable as I wear this shirt. It's just part of my story."

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