KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas City resident Keith Gale can still recall his mother’s tears as she pleaded with him to begin substance use recovery in 2010.

He started drinking heavily in 2008 while, like so many others with substance use disorder, dealing with trauma.

“It kind of became comfortable to not be sober because I didn’t have to deal with any of those emotions,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry about what people thought about me.”

That quickly spiraled into habits that were much worse.

“Within a year and a half, I was homeless and I was using meth on a daily basis,” he said.

Roughly two years after his drinking started, Gale said he tried to get help. 

Today, nearly 15 years later, he said he still has peaks and valleys.

“The whole process from 15 years ago until now, it’s just been up, down, sideways, around this turn, around this turn. It’s not a straightforward path like a lot of people think,” he said.

Ken Vick, executive director at Kansas City recovery treatment center Benilda Hall, said substance use is a treatable condition.

But one of the biggest barriers that often stands in the way is how we as a society think about recovery, he said.

“Some of the stigma’s starting to disappear, but there’s still a lot of stigma connected with substance use disorder and a lot of people still kind of misguide it and think it’s a moral issue rather than a disease,” Vick said.

The underlying issue

For two decades, Vick said he used meth, among other substances, before finding himself in a federal prison.

Now, he’s in recovery and runs the program where Gale came for treatment in 2019.

He said the way we think about recovery can be the difference between someone successfully getting help or giving up.

“I think we need to put away some of our old thinking, the old school moral beliefs, the fact that it’s their fault,” he said.

Vick said the general public doesn’t always appreciate that substance use is usually just a symptom of much deeper trauma.

It’s like treating a broken arm with pain killers without fixing the broken bone, he said.

“We didn’t actually treat the underlying issue,” Vick said. “All we did was treat the symptom.”

When substance abuse isn’t involved, studies have shown Americans are largely defeating old stigmas about our mental health and getting treatment for conditions like depression and anxiety.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 19.2% of adults received mental health treatment in 2019. In 2020, the number rose to 20.3%, data shows. 

But when those conditions lead to drugs and alcohol, Vick said Americans tend to not have as much empathy for those seeking treatment.

“Well, we’ve been doing that with substance use disorder for years — treat this, treat this, treat this — and we’re actually missing depression, anxiety, trauma,” he said.

Slashing the stigmas

Dr. Roopa Sethi, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said the stigmas are slowly diminishing.

She said experts and advocates are working hard to create a culture of understanding, especially when it comes to the way society talks about substance use disorder.

“Words create powerful imagery, so ‘addict,’ ‘junkie,’ gotta go,” Sethi said. “People who use drugs, people with substance use disorders, two separate populations. Not everyone who uses drugs has a clinical disorder.”

But old thoughts about drug use being a sign of a moral failing make it a challenge.

“Addiction is normal, and we have to start treating it as such because the more we continue to treat it as this abnormality, the more it stigmatizes individuals,” she said.

Sethi said students in KU’s medical school are getting training today about treating people with substance use disorder that doctors from her generation never got.

“If you change the way you handle your problems or you deal with some kind of stress, you might not go back to using because you changed the process of thinking,” she said.

Gale said he’s still working on that process of thinking to this day.

“Once I get my mental health in check, I don’t feel like going out and using something,” he said. “Drinking? What’s the point? I feel great.”

For more information on recovery treatment in your area, visit the Missouri Department of Mental Health’s website or the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services website.