The Butterfly Effect—Changing Lives One Small Step at a Time

I am a great believer in the Butterfly Effect—the concept that evolved out of the field of meteorology suggesting that a tiny change in initial conditions can significantly impact or alter the outcome of an event or condition. Here at Fedcap, we think of our work through a lens similar to the Butterfly Effect: rather than try to tackle an entire system, we look at precise interventions that can move a habitual trajectory slightly off course to what might be—and most often is—a better outcome—and an outcome that has the potential to change an entire system.

One example of this type of intervention is our work with youth aging out of foster care. For many of these youth, college may not have been imagined as a logical next step after high school. So we asked the questions: What is one, careful intervention we could design to help ready youth in care to go to college? How can we help create a college-going environment in a foster home? The answer was a precise solution: we created our PrepNow! ™ and GetReady!™ programs to help foster parents answer the often daunting questions about how to help youth get ready for college. These programs are changing lives and helping youth who may never have believed college was even possible—by helping them navigate the application process, wrestle with financial aid, and hone their values and skills so they are college-ready. What we have discovered, though not a new concept, is that often, the best answers to huge societal problems lie in fairly simple solutions.

Peer recovery for those who are struggling with addiction is another precise intervention that can mean the difference between recovery and sustained addiction.  It is not new news that the opiod crisis has had an impact on every state in the country. And nowhere is the crisis more keenly felt than in New Hampshire, where the percentage of opiod deaths last year were higher than any other state in the U.S.

Peer-led support is fairly simple, yet it has proven to be the most radical and effective tool in the recovery toolbox. Support for those who have substance use disorder is led by people who have traveled the pathway to recovery and who understand the joy and the challenges of the journey. When a person in recovery “walks” alongside someone who has a shared experience, that support is ever more credible and sustaining than work alongside someone who is not intimately familiar with the unique pitfalls and possibilities of recovery.

Research shows that a peer-led recovery environment decreases morbidity rates, improves self-efficacy, lowers incidences of depression, heightens self-esteem, and overall, improves quality of life. The precise intervention is qualitative: it is about human connection, which is what makes all the difference.

Peer-led recovery lives in four domains, as identified by the SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration):

  • The Emotional Domain—the obvious driver of support—emphasizes empathy, caring, and real connection among peers.
  • The Informational Domain focuses on vocational skills and practical life skills that will help those in recovery develop new habits that will support their recovery
  • The Affiliational Domain where those in recovery interact and become attached to the community thereby deepening their socialization and feeling of connection to a larger world
  • The Instrumental Domain—the most practical domain—where those in recovery work alongside their peers to solve problems that can drastically interfere with getting the support they need—such as transportation, child care, or safe and affordable housing.

This week, we are celebrating the opening of our Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, NH. Safe Harbor falls under the umbrella of our Granite Pathways subsidiary—the agency that is leading our efforts in New Hampshire to serve individuals with barriers.  At Safe Harbor, those in recovery—and their friends and families—will be able to experience peer-to-peer mentoring, family support, community building, vocational support, and ongoing support telephonically or technologically.

Peer recovery, like PrepNow!, is the fruit of asking essential questions such as: What is a precise and simple change we can make that could potentially and significantly alter the outcomes?

What essential questions might you ask to effect a simple, yet essential change to a system you care to improve?

Graduation as the embodiment of second chances and the power of possible.

Grad 2

June is a month of graduations, new beginnings, and second chances.  For Fedcap and its family of agencies, this is a time of joyful celebrations, as pre-schoolers graduate from our ESNY child development programs and move on to first grade, teenagers graduate from our Fedcap High School, and adults graduate from our Career Design School.   Each of these celebrations is different in its own way, yet the theme of courage, hope and joy is braided through each.

We pause to honor these many graduates because of our conviction that education is the pathway to equity and to long term economic well-being.  We know that along with education comes the power of choice. When someone graduates from one of our schools, they are taking a stand and saying: I am in charge of my future.  They are saying: I believe in the power of possible in my life.

Our graduates come to us as they are—some are lost, some are angry, some are eager and excited, some are scared, some are homeless, and some come from a legacy of abuse and failure.  We embrace, we teach, we train, we believe, and then we all work hard to help them achieve their dreams.

Over 800 five-year olds with varying forms of disability are leaving our pre-schools and entering public school to learn alongside their non-disabled peers.  One parent—in tears—at our Valhalla Child Development Center graduation said, “I did not think it was possible. I am starting to believe that my daughter will be viewed by the world as so much more than her disability, but the courageous, smart little girl she is…Easter Seals did that for her.”

And in Manhattan, 150 proud graduates received their diplomas from Fedcap’s Career Design School amidst the raucous cheering of nearly 600 family and friends. Chastity Salas was one of those graduates and embodies their spirit and heart.  Because of family struggles and a mentally ill mom, Chastity was homeless.  Yet she graduated from the Home Care program and started work.  She slept on the subway, dressed in shelters, and did not miss one appointment with her clients. She told her fellow graduates, “I do not intend to paint my homelessness story as a sad and hopeless one. I am not sad nor am I hopeless.” I am in full realization of what I am capable of achieving and becoming… I fully understand that I have to do this for myself and I will.”

When a young person is labeled as a “behavior problem” or defined as “special ed” and shuffled from class to class it is hard to believe that graduation is even possible.  Yet at our Fedcap School, eight young people did what most thought impossible…they graduated from high school, and several are going on to college.  The cheers of teachers, family members, and fellow students were jubilant—as one graduate put it, “I proved everyone wrong…even myself… I did it!”  And now, the world is open to her.

Our graduation is not merely an event, but it is a portal to possibilities that were once just distant hopes.

Chastity’s message to her fellow graduates was this: “Good, better, best, never let it rest until your good gets better and your better gets best. It doesn’t matter how old you are—never give up.”

Join me in congratulating our classes of 2016.

 

Graduation and Commencement—Celebration, New Beginnings, The Power of Possible.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.   — Lao Tze

We are rapidly approaching my favorite day on the Fedcap calendar—Graduation Day. June is full of graduations—but none is as evocative or inspiring to me as ours. On June 15th over two hundred and fifty men and women—of all ages—will cross the stage at John Jay College and receive a diploma for an extraordinary accomplishment—many against unimaginable odds.

Our graduates come from all walks of life. They represent a full roster of the people we exist to serve—those with barriers to employment—individuals with physical or mental disabilities, youth aging out of foster care, veterans, the previously incarcerated, recovering addicts, and older workers who have been nudged out of the workplace. Each graduate harbors a story of triumph in personal courage and determination. Each story is an example of resilience and hardiness and strength. And each moment among cheering parents, relatives, children, grandchildren, and friends inspires me, our staff, and our board of directors to keep on doing the work we are doing to make possible what was, for many, once inconceivable.

Graduation opens the door to job placement, many in our own businesses. We see folks settled into jobs in facilities management, culinary arts, document imaging and printing, and security. Many of the graduates are already employed, and many will be, based on the skills and strengths they have built through our programs.

Graduation day reminds me of the power of one person to make a difference. One graduate, through perseverance, gumption, and will, can alter the course of her or his family history. Where there may have been hopelessness about a bright future, there is now resolve. Where some focused only on the outcome, they now understand the journey is where the action is. These are lessons learned only through taking a goal one day at a time, one step at a time, showing up day after day until this day—graduation day is upon us. And now, commencement begins—commencement to the next step, the next journey—it is thrilling to imagine what that could and will be.

And the day reminds me of not only the power of the graduates to make a difference in their own lives, but also the power of their families, friends, and “chosen” families to do this for others. Without the support and the backing of those closest to us—those who believe in us—where would we be? Many of us would not be where we are today.

And finally, I am reminded of the difference, every day, that our staff makes in the lives of the graduates and their colleagues. Each of the staff, including many who have crossed the stage before this graduating class of 2016, has the power and ability to mentor, inspire, and lead others to places they had not dreamed were possible.

I can’t wait til the 15th of June! I can’t wait to see the smiles on the faces of those who have worked so hard—and to hear the cheers of their supporters—staff, friends, and family.

We each have an opportunity every day to help others move from impossible to possible. I go to bed each night wondering: What did I do today to help someone discover their “possible”? What will you do?

 

Transparency = Trust: The metrics tell the story.

Late last week, we released our operating and financial results for our first half of fiscal year 2016—ending March 31. We publicly present our operating and financial results twice a year—a process I look forward to as it offers us—and every stakeholder, partner, grantor, vendor, consumer, and contractor—a clear picture of our performance. Over 130 people listened to our release last week.types-of-real-estate-loans

I believe that the process of providing operating and fiscal results yields much more than just a dashboard of our work for our constituents to see. The process also yields trust, which is paramount to our ability to create and innovate relevant, sustainable solutions for people with barriers. By openly sharing our financial and operating performance, we create a platform of trust that enables us to expand our collective efforts.

Here are some highlights of the first half of 2016 (October 2015-March 2016):

We served 43,272 individuals through our four practice areas: Economic Development, Workforce Development, Education Services, and Occupational Health—nearly double as the same time last year. Our revenue grew by 44%, driven both by organic and acquisition initiatives. We maintained our program expenses at 88% of our operating expenses, and we expanded our footprint throughout New Hampshire and Maine, Maryland, and Delaware through new contract awards and mergers and acquisitions.

Economic Development accounted for 45.4% of our total first year’s revenues. This practice area includes business service operations that directly employ the populations we serve, the majority of whom have disabilities or other barriers. In the first half of the year, we employed 1500 people in our Total Facilities Management, Manufacturing, Business Solutions, Catering, Security, Home Health Care and Staffing Solutions.

Workforce Development accounted for 34.6% of our revenues and is the practice area where we serve the largest number of individuals. In this area, we placed over 3,700 people in jobs, including 155 ReServists—retired professionals aged 55+ whom we place within organizations to create social impact in the areas of education, health care, and poverty fighting.

Education Services and Occupational Health accounts for 16.5% of our revenue. In these areas, we achieved close to three times the prior year’s revenues due to our combination with Easter Seals New York and our expanded work in the area of substance use disorders and recovery. Our Education and Occupational Health practice areas includes work in behavioral health, assistance for youth transitioning from foster care and vocational rehabilitation for individuals with disabilities. I’m proud to say that over 400 people advanced grade level, graduated from high school, matriculated into college, graduated from college or received a vocational rehabilitation certification through our Career Design School.

I invite you to take a look at our full release on our home page at www.fedcap.org. The metrics matter—they tell the story of our day-to-day work making a difference in thousands of lives and to the power of possible—the mantra we strive to live by every day. I also invite you to evaluate and analyze what you see in our presentation, and I welcome your suggestions, ideas, feedback, and recommendations for any other information you would like to see in the future.

We aim to be on the edge of best practices, to contribute to the highest standard of transparency, and to continually reflect our principles and practices. We count on you as partners to help us achieve the power of possible.

 

 

National Foster Care Awareness—a celebration and a challenge

May is national Foster Care Awareness month—created to acknowledge the lives of young people, their foster families, and the many caring individuals who have helped rewrite stories that began as chapters of adversity into stories of success. There are hundreds of accounts of young people who, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, have gone on to forever change the course of their lives and of generations to come because of the hearts and homes of foster families. It is a time to celebrate these successes.

National Foster Care Awareness month is also a time to challenge ourselves by considering work that still needs to be done on behalf of youth in care. We have still a long way to go to ensure that all youth have an equal chance at success.

Here are the statistics:

On any given day, there are over 500,000 children in foster care. That’s more than the populations of cities like Miami or Honolulu or Minneapolis.

Approximately 800,000 children will have some contact with the foster system every year. That’s more than the populations of Boston, San Francisco, or Austin.

Approximately 28,000 youth will age out of foster care each year. One in seven of them will be homeless.

50% of them will be unemployed.

20% of foster youth turn to criminal behavior, compared to 5% of the general population.

And taxpayers pay $22 billion dollars a year on foster care. This does not include monies spent on prevention or treatment for substance abuse.

We know that the best way to prevent youth from entering the child welfare system—and crossing over to the juvenile justice system—is early identification of families at risk. This identification starts with coordination of care across society—in our schools, houses of worship, neighborhood centers, and any agency or organization that touches our families. For those for whom prevention is not possible, there are interventions that can occur that will alter the discouraging course of the statistics above. It is work by people like Shay Bilchik, founder and Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, whom we honored this past week at our Wildcat Spring Cocktail party, who continue to challenge policy makers and offer practical, multi-system approaches to supporting youth in care.

At Fedcap, we, too, are committed to ongoing efforts to support youth in care. While Mr. Bilchik is working on system-wide interventions such as the Crossover Youth Practice Model I’ve described in past weeks, we are also working on innovative, precise interventions that are practical and sustainable and that will bolster the connection between foster parents and their foster children. For example, our PrepNow! program, now being implemented coast to coast, offers a full, blended “curriculum,” aimed at creating a college-going environment in the home of foster parents who may not have previously prepared a child for the process of applying to college or advancing to the next step in their careers. It is these precise interventions that can make the difference. We will continue to work toward creating interventions—and preventions—to reduce the statistics of youth who cross over between the child welfare and the juvenile justice systems. I welcome your ideas and thoughts on ways we can continue to innovate and to improve the stories of youth in care. Feel free to comment with your ideas—I welcome your thoughts, as always.

Can “Crossing Over” Be Prevented?

In my last post, I highlighted the work of Shay Bilchik, a tireless pioneer who has devoted his life’s work to forging pathways to improve outcomes for at-risk youth and their families. A focus area of Mr. Bilchik’s work is the population of children known as “crossover youth,” young people who are involved in both the child welfare and the juvenile justice systems and who require a more precise and complex intervention to redirect their future than those who are involved singly in one system or the other. Mr. Bilchik and other forerunners in the field have collaborated on a model called the Crossover Youth Practice Model (CYPM), a template for standards of practice that can be integrated for—and by—the courts, social workers, and probation officers working together in partnership with families on a daily, practical basis to improve outcomes for these youth.

The question is: can “crossing over” be prevented before intervention is required?

Each child identified as crossover youth has his or her own story—most often a very difficult one that is marked by trauma. In general, and in common, they have likely been exposed to persistent maltreatment in the form of abuse and neglect, and they have engaged in–or are at risk of engaging–in delinquent behavior, sometimes, though not always, leading them to the juvenile court system.

Much research has been done on the impact of abuse and neglect and how trauma affects future behavior. Not every child who is subjected to maltreatment goes on to commit delinquency. Detailed studies show that the top risk factors for predicting criminal behavior in youth are: 1) They have likely been exposed to and been the victims of physical violence; 2) The abuse is likely to have been compounded and severe; and 3) they have been the victims of neglect over a long period of time. In addition, when youth are placed out of home, the types of placement can make a difference in future behavior. For example, those who live in group homes (as opposed to a family like setting) appear to be more likely to engage in criminal behavior and to become involved with the juvenile justice system.

By recognizing these risk factors early on, it is possible that those involved in the child welfare system will be able to identify many of the youth who are at risk of crossing over before they get to the juvenile justice system. But that work means introducing a systemic change that transcends current politics, policies, and practices and calls on tangible and intangible forces to work together.

I believe crossing over can be prevented. I believe that the Crossover Youth Practice Model and the work of Shay Bilchik and many others in the juvenile justice and child welfare arenas lays out principles, evidence-based procedures, and ways to assure quality of care that will lead to prevention of crossing over.

By intervening early on, by holding fast to the principles of striving for normalcy for children and families on a daily basis, and by continuing to implement precise interventions along the way, we can make huge strides in preventing youth from crossing over and thereby creating a better future for them and for their families. I believe it is possible.

What do you think?

 

Shay Bilchik – Making a Difference Through Inspired Leadership

make a difference phrase on blackboard

On May 18th, at Fedcap’s Spring Cocktail Party, we are honored to be presenting the Amalia Betzanos Award to Shay Bilchik, the founder and Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.  Amalia Betanzos, an iconic figure in New York City was the founder of Wildcat Services Corp. – a subsidiary of Fedcap—and a longtime, powerful advocate for helping people with criminal backgrounds get that all important second chance.

Mr. Bilchik is a lifelong and tireless visionary and pioneer, promoting a researched and multi-systems approach to addressing the needs of young people involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Mr. Bilchik’s remarkable work has been focused on creating a comprehensive model that unites policies, data, and best practices among all those who are involved with juvenile justice. His is a reform agenda with a particular focus on the needs of young people who have been involved with both the child welfare system because of abuse or neglect, and the juvenile justice system, based on instances of delinquent behavior. These young people, dually involved, are referred to as “crossover youth.”

For years, the child welfare system and the juvenile justice systems worked in solos, which meant that when a young person “crossed over” from one system there was little to no coordination of services and supports.

Under the leadership of Shay Bilchik, The Center for Juvenile Justice Reform established a model, called the Crossover Youth Practice Model (CYPM), to unite in common language, goals, principles and practice the work of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The principles of the CYPM are rooted in a strengths-based approach—calling for the best practices and aspirations of the systems, practitioners, the youth and their families. Additionally, the model calls for data-driven decision making by integrating information across systems as well as ensuring that all involved—from leadership to case workers—are well-trained and will ultimately serve as equitable partners united in their goal of improving the outcomes of the youth being served. The Crossover Youth Practice Model is working; it has been integrated into hundreds of jurisdictions across the country and the outcomes for crossover youth are significantly improving.

In the weeks to come, I will be highlighting many of the successes of the CYPM as well as and asking for your feedback and thinking about ways to continuously raise awareness and find solutions to prevent young people in the child welfare system from “crossing over”.

In the meantime, I am heralding the remarkable leadership of Shay Bilchik. His is the type of collaborative, team-based, innovative thinking and hard work that makes change in institutionalized systems possible. He is a champion in our field—and reminds me every day that the work we do to improve lives is possible.

He inspires us all to remember that we can make a difference, we can imagine what is possible and we can implement the strategy, systems, structure, and vision to improve not only the lives of those we serve, but society at large.

What Sticks: Learnings from Fedcap’s 11th Solution Series

Lessons Learned written on chalkboard

On Wednesday, March 30th, Fedcap held its 11th Solution Series—a forum for discussing and forging new strategies and solutions to address the top issues facing people with barriers to economic self-sufficiency.

Each time we hold a Solution Series, I am struck once again by our tagline: The Power of Possible. The “power” comes from gathering a community of business executives, representatives from government agencies and academe, policy makers, providers, and consumers of our services united in the purpose of finding innovative ways to alter the stigma—and the lives—of those of us who face barriers. The “possible” is the creation of an open forum where issues are discussed and the audience leaves enlightened and energized to continue to seek precise and realistic solutions to the tangible and intangible issues that challenge those with barriers. These events are among the many reasons why I love my work and am reminded that every day, our work is improving the lives of those we serve.

The Solution Series on March 30th was one of our best ever. Our goal was to gather a panel to discuss strategies and solutions for supporting individuals in the workplace recovering—or struggling—with substance use disorder or mental illness. Over 150 people, representing 65 businesses came together at the top of the Mutual of America building on Park Avenue in New York, and upwards of 100 attended via live-stream from all over the country. Facilitated by Chief Strategy Officer, Lorrie Lutz, the panel included Matt Sisk, Deputy Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Brooke Wilson, the director of Resources for Living at Aetna, and Jim Salzano, the CEO of Easy Spirit (a Nine West holding).

Each speaker brought a different perspective to the issues of recovery in the workplace. Brooke Wilson spoke of “presenteeism”—the concept that there are people who show up for work every day, but they are really not present—not contributing at full capacity because they may be wrestling with addiction or mental health issues. She outlined specific things to look for as well as ways to help educate managers, leaders, and co-workers about the warning signs of presenteeism. Brooke’s work at Aetna has been to transform what was formerly known as the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) into a much more open and accessible resource called Resources for Living—with great results including a sizeable increase in people taking advantage of the myriad services offered.

Jim Salzano spoke of his obligation as a leader. He believes that as CEO, his job to serve everyone in the organization to ensure they have what they need—including access to services should they need them. He spoke about creating a culture of support—of trust and vulnerability—that will erase the shame and stigma of mental health and substance use challenges—and replace it with support, education, and access to necessary help. He spoke of the line between “ability” and “disability,” and the wobbliness of that line—suggesting that it may be too rigid to box people into either category.

Matt Sisk spoke openly about his own struggles with addiction in a high-powered post and about what it is like to now sit on the “other” side of the desk, leading a large staff of people and supporting those who need it most with education and access to services.

I am energized by what I learned on March 30th. Joe Giannetto, our Chief Operating Officer, closed the meeting by highlighting the ways the landscape is changing for mental health and addiction and that society’s perspective is undergoing a renewal and hope for the betterment of everyone. I agree with him. I believe that change occurs one conversation at time. The Solution Series is one such conversation. I welcome more conversation and more dialogue about the possibilities for continued movement away from stigma and toward support and integration.

What do you think?

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L-R Brook Wilson, Aetna, Jim Salzano, Easy Spirit, Mark O’Donoghue, Fedcap Board Chair, Matt Sisk, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Christine McMahon, CEO Fedcap

 

Why employers may be the first line of defense against SUD and mental illness.

 

“At Clarke Shoes and now at Easy Spirit we tried hard not to institutionalize the way that we interact with people, but instead we try to lead with our humanity.  This created a culture where people who were struggling with mental health or substance use disorders could ask for help—we worked to remove the stigma.” 

                                                                                               Jim Salzano, Easy Spirit Shoes

One of our mantras at Fedcap is “work completes treatment.” In other words, work leads to greater economic self-sufficiency, increased self-esteem, and ultimately healthy connection with colleagues—all antidotes to the roots of addiction. When an individual is employed and self-sufficient and working in an environment where the culture supports asking for help, many of the issues that led to addiction in the first place can be mitigated.

 

Jim Salzano, the CEO of Easy Spirit and prior CEO at Clarke Shoes, has led the way in creating a culture of acceptance and support for employees who struggle with mental health or substance use disorders. Mr. Salzano will be joining us on Wednesday, March 30 for our Solution Series discussion on how to turn a workplace culture from fear and stigma around mental health and substance use issues to one of support and encouragement. We’ll also hear from Matt Sisk, the Deputy Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation who himself struggled with the fear and stigma as he made his own path to recovery. Brooke Wilson, from Aetna will speak about the ways an Employee Assistance Program can intervene and support businesses, and Adrienne Occhino of the Boston-based Kimpton Hotels will talk about ways her business is working to change the culture around addiction and mental health.

The most recent statistics suggest that 23.5 million people suffer with substance use disorder or SUD. Here’s the problem: substance use disorder leads to a huge hit to an employer’s bottom line through absenteeism, reduced productivity, increased risk of injuries and illness and exorbitant health care costs due to issues such as emergency room visits, disability, and worker’s comp claims. It is estimated that $276 billion dollars a year are incurred by employers in the cost of care due to employee substance abuse issues and untreated mental illness.

These statistics can be reversed.

Many of the people who struggle with addiction or mental illness do not choose to get help. They lack education about what treatment is available, they lack resources to pay for treatment, or, like Matt Sisk, they are worried about what their coworkers will think of them. Employers can make a huge impact. By implementing policies and education about issues around addiction and mental illness, they can begin to reverse the financial and human toll.

 When employers do not appreciate and understand the tangible and intangible price of mental illness and addiction, their bottom lines will continue to be impacted in ways that could ultimately be prevented. And yet,  if employers do understand and act, they can lead the way in changing not only the course of those who suffer from addiction and/or mental illness, but also create a positive culture  while reducing stigma and modeling to the greater society how these individuals should be treated and supported.

Join us on March 30th from 8-9:30 a.m. for our Solution Series: Addressing Employee Mental Illness and Addiction—Improving Your Business Bottom Line. Our four panelists will offer concrete strategies and solutions for creating a supportive culture in the workplace for those who have mental health or substance use issues.

 

 

Stigma, mental illness, and SUD—changing the culture one contact at a time.

In 2014, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health conducted a survey of 700 people to determine their attitudes about employment of people in recovery from substance use disorder (SUD). 64% of those surveyed believed employers should be able to deny work to an individual with SUD; 57% percent believe that those individuals should have the same access to employment—and health insurance—as someone who does not struggle with SUD.

In a similar study in the U.K., 58% of respondents said they believe drug addiction results from a lack of willpower. 43% said that they didn’t want to live near someone with SUD.

Just as there are facts to prove that climate change exists, there are facts to prove that SUD and mental illness are real—this isn’t exactly new news, especially in our field. It’s not the facts—or lack of facts—that are the problem—it’s what people believe that calls forth the stigma—both from the public point of view, and from the point of view of the person who struggles with mental illness or SUD. The facts also bear out that shame is linked to substance use issues—and of course, if shame is a driver to SUD, then it is piled on as a consequence of public stigma.

Research tells us that there are three possible strategies to combat stigma: 1) protest—tell people they’re wrong. This strategy is basically reactive, but can serve to further awareness. I don’t believe it is a leading strategy for eliminating stigma. Then there’s: 2) education—a much more effective tool, which can lead to improved attitudes as people are confronted with facts. Unfortunately, those who have tucked away stereotypes or prejudices are not apt to embrace education that could disavow them of their beliefs.

The third way to combat stigma is contact—direct contact with those who would potentially be stigmatized. Contact is a simple, human answer to the problem of stigma. Getting to know someone removes barriers—true in any sphere. And, getting to know someone in a work environment, where it is clear that an individual can be a contributing, viable workmate is one of the chief ways to chip away at a culture that will inevitably shift as people get to know other people.

I am very excited about our upcoming Solution Series on March 30th —our 11th—which highlights two employers who have taken strides to support their employees with mental illness and substance use disorder. The policies, practices, and processes they have in place all serve to reduce—and ultimately eliminate—stigma through awareness, education, and most importantly, through day to day contact among employees. Please join us—and please feel free to share your thoughts about stigma—what do you do—every day—that can work toward eliminating stigma?

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