The newest national initiative to raise awareness and resources for substance use treatment and recovery won't be following the example of past efforts in the field. Gary Mendell frankly has higher ambitions than that.
“We're emulating the national health charities such as the American Cancer Society, Autism Speaks,” says Mendell, who left his executive career in the hotel business to establish Shatterproof. “They are doing enormous good for people in their areas. That's the model.”
This wasn't Mendell's goal from the beginning.
Shortly after the October 2011 death of his older son Brian, who had battled addiction throughout his teens and early 20s, Mendell took what he expected would be a brief hiatus from his job to evaluate how best to form a small charity in his son's honor. He would immerse himself in learning more about the disease and its treatment, but what he learned would shock him and convince him that he needed to do more.
“I was shocked to learn how many treatment programs generally don't follow what the science says,” states Mendell.
Sensing a unique convergence of factors that include accessible research findings, increased public awareness, and implementation of seminal federal legislation, Mendell has left the hotel business and created an expanded vision for an organization he originally launched with $5 million of his own money.
An entity originally named Brian's Wish is now Shatterproof, a website was launched last September, and plans for where to allocate funds and devote attention will be in place by spring (Mendell has raised an additional $2 million since the original infusion of dollars).
“This is no longer about Brian,” says Mendell. “There are 15 people who die from this disease every hour.”
He adds, “This will be about three things: preventing as many children from developing this disease as possible; for those with the disease, providing treatment based on scientific research; and eliminating the stigma toward the human beings who have this disease.”
The outpouring of support that Mendell received after his son's death demonstrated the many lives that Brian had touched, including how he had helped reassure many of the people with whom he had been in treatment. But Brian himself had struggled as he cycled through numerous residential, outpatient and wilderness therapy programs, and even though he had been drug-free for more than a year when he ended his life, his suicide note brought to light his frustration with the treatment services he had received.
“He was going to outpatient treatment one day a week, and he wrote in his letter, 'They're not being honest with me,'” says Mendell. “He said he knew I would listen to them, but he said, 'What they're telling you is wrong—this is not for me.'”
During his research after his son's death, Mendell was able to get access to high-level officials at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and is particularly grateful for the guidance he received from nationally known researcher and former NIDA director Robert DuPont, MD. Mendell says that every time he hit on a key point in his research, he would write it on a summary sheet; this eventually would leave him with five crucial pieces of information that he had not been aware of in his son's lifetime:
That the issue of substance use disorders was far bigger than he had ever imagined, since no one else really was talking about it when he was experiencing it in his own family.
That while the public image of the addict is probably that of a young adult, most individuals become afflicted during adolescence. “This is about our society protecting our children,” Mendell says.
Federal agencies have funded research that has defined evidence-based practices for prevention and treatment, but they largely are not being used in real-world settings. “There is research that exists today that can start saving lives tomorrow,” he says.
There is no American Cancer Society-like organization for addiction, but instead a fragmented and uncoordinated web of efforts. “There is no national entity of the scope and size that the people of this country deserve,” Mendell says.
The time is now for making significant progress, because the field has research evidence to document that this is a disease, the public is growing increasingly compassionate toward its victims, and parity and health reform can usher in scores of new patients with behavioral health needs.
An uncommon approach
As the idea for a larger organization evolved, Mendell worked with a consultant to brand the entity. He says he deliberately avoided using “addiction” in the title, since so many other entities use the word and the more accurate terminology is “substance use disorder.”
“We wanted something memorable that would speak to all segments of the population,” Mendell says. “Something that is uplifting to teens and their parents. We're here to shatterproof these families.”
Shatterproof's initial awareness events also are taking an uncommon approach. Rather than organizing another rally or charity walk, there are about two dozen scheduled events for this year in which individuals will raise money in order to rappel from one of the tallest buildings in a city, usually a hotel.
“This is our answer to the Susan Komen Race for the Cure” for breast cancer awareness, says Mendell. “Our effort is about bringing people together to create awareness. The idea is that people with this disease struggle a lot harder than most of us know. If these people can stay clean another day, then I can rappel from a building.'