Senate candidate leads local addiction discussion

Eliminating a stigma that surrounds addiction and prevents people from seeking treatment was a message that was repeated Saturday at the Blair County Convention Center.

There a group of addiction experts led by Dale Kerns, a Pennsylvanian candidate for U.S. Senate, addressed a small crowd of several dozen people.

As part of an exercise, those in the crowd were asked to raise their hands for different reasons — if they had a relative with an addiction problem, if they had an addiction problem or if they had a friends with an addiction problem.

By the end of the list, nearly every audience member had a raised hand.

Kerns said his goal is to support those addicts by eliminating negative stigmas and pushing a message that addiction is an illness that requires treatment.

“Maybe 10 years ago, we might not have had this many people in this room,” Kerns said. “If we don’t get to the underlying root cause of addiction, we are never going to get past this.”

Kerns told personal stories during his speech, talking about his mother and cousin, who both suffered from addiction.

Kerns said he watched as addiction made those relatives resort to hurtful behavior, including theft. But he said it is important to realize that addiction itself is not a crime, but “a human affliction.”

And because of negative stigmas associated with that “affliction,” many addicts are embarrassed about or unwilling to discuss their problems, said Paul Fletcher, who also spoke at the event.

Fletcher, a former pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, talked about his struggles with alcohol.

Fletcher said he had wanted to be a professional baseball player since he was a child.

“Not once did I say, ‘I want to be an alcoholic,'” Fletcher said.

But when his baseball career ended, Fletcher said he found himself turning toward alcohol more and more.

“When I retired, I used alcohol as a coping skill because I was not happy once I lost my career,” he said.

Fletcher talked about hiding stashes of booze, and the toll his illness took on his family and friends.

But he also spoke about his efforts to hide the problem from those same people who supported him. It was the negative stigma that kept him from coming forward.

“I should never have been ashamed to ask for help,” he said. “I could not look in a mirror.”

Fletcher’s mental health took a dive, and in 2009 he tried to commit suicide, he said.

“Thank God I didn’t accomplish that,” Fletcher said Saturday, looking back.

Defying negativity helped Fletcher get sober, and, on Saturday, he told those in attendance he didn’t care what they thought about his past. He encouraged other addicts to adopt a similar mentality when seeking treatment.

“Don’t be ashamed of your loved ones or somebody else that’s in addiction,” he said. “People don’t ask for help because they are ashamed.”

Kerns said he plans to preach the same message and to act on it, campaigning on an “addiction is not a crime bill.”

On Saturday, Kerns said he hopes for meaningful reform that will eliminate the stigma, by providing a path to treatment and addressing underlying problems, such as for-profit prisons and lobbying from large pharmaceutical companies.

“What we’re doing just isn’t working,” he said. “We’re losing people left and right, day by day, hour by hour.”

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.