Breaking the Shame, Stigma and Silence around Addiction

Breaking the Shame, Stigma and Silence around Addiction

Patrick Kennedy, son of Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy, recently went on CBS's "60 minutes" to discuss his personal and familial history with drugs and alcohol in an effort to help others battle addiction.

In his new book, “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction,” Patrick Kennedy details his and his families private struggles with alcohol, drug addiction and mental illness in hope of helping break the silence, stigma and shame surrounding mental illness and substance abuse.

During his interview on "60 Minutes," Kennedy revealed that when he was growing up, no one in his family spoke about mental illness or addiction. He went on to describe himself as being "hostage to the family code," in which "…anything you say, it's disloyal. It's against the family code." During the program, he shed light on just how common it is for families to keep their experiences with addiction and mental illness a secret. “You get infected by the pathology of silence,” he said at one point. “And that is sickening your soul."

It wasn't until shortly after his father’s death in 2009 that Kennedy decided to resign from Congress, begin his recovery process and start breaking the silence around mental illness and substance abuse. Currently, he is leading a political movement to change the way people view and talk about these important issues.  

Unfortunately, the Kennedys’ story of silence, stigma and shame when dealing with mental illness and addiction is far too familiar in this country, often prohibiting people from seeking out the treatment and help they need. So it becomes our moral and ethical responsibility to respond to our own community.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, one in 10 Americans is alcohol and/or chemical dependent. And each individual substance abuser affects four to five others, usually family members. The problem is not limited to any specific segment of society; in fact, the Jewish community suffers the effects of this affliction, possibly to a greater extent than expected.

As for exact statistics, "nobody knows," said Dr. Abraham Twerski, medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, an institution he founded in 1972 for the treatment of alcoholism and other substance addictions. “Among Jewish college youth, there is a great deal of substance abuse, particularly prescription drug abuse. Among Jewish older folks, alcohol abuse is more prevalent.”

Tami Crystal, executive director of the Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others Foundation (JACS), a UJA-Federation agency headquartered in the New York area, said, "There are two odd things about Jews [regarding alcohol and substance abuse]. It very often skips a generation [in Jews] a little more than in other groups. Also, there is a greater percentage, a higher degree per capita, of pill abuse... because we go to doctors more."

And yet, this silence and shame create a cycle of being ashamed and alone. What we know now about healing and recovery — for any substance or destructive behavior — is it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You have to be an agent for change, but you can’t do it alone. To begin to heal, as it says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6), “Provide yourself with a teacher, and get for yourself a friend.” With that you are on your way.


To get help or learn more about HAMSA (Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse) please email HAMSA@jfcs-atlanta.org or call 770.677.9318.


Written by Jessica Hallberlin, Posted in Counseling Services

About the Author

Jessica Hallberlin

Jessica Hallberlin

Jessie Hallberlin has long had a passion for helping others. She received her Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Georgia and recently graduated from Smith College School for Social Work with an MSW. As an intern at JF&CS, she used her clinical skills to provide both group and individual therapy to clients ;struggling with a wide variety of mental health issues, including addiction. She uses both psychotherapy and DBT techniques in working with clients, with a strong focus on the therapeutic relationship.