If addiction or mental illness puts holiday cheer beyond reach, consider the gift of empathy: Scott S. Osiecki

CLEVELAND – During the holiday season a lot of us want to do something to help others but don’t really know what it should be.

It turns out that one of the most precious gifts we have to give is simply to take care of the people who feel the added stress of the holidays the most. People with addiction or mental illness, whether they are recovering or not, are likely to experience sadness, anxiety or pain. Maybe that’s because they aren’t living the idealized version of life that we see everywhere at this time of year. Or because of memories – whether of better times or past trauma – that can trigger relapses into substance abuse.

The Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Addiction and Mental Health Services Board offers some advice for those feeling overwhelmed by the vacations and the lingering pandemic, but the challenges can be considerable.

Relatives of people with addiction or mental illness often face their own challenges – disappointment at an empty seat at the table for the struggling son or daughter who did not show up; the pervasive fear that a person presenting themselves is drinking too much or acting irrational as a symptom of their mental illness or substance use disorder.

We may feel powerless to help people we know who are facing these challenges, but we are not. By showing a little empathy and grace – and dismissing the stigma many attach to people living with addiction or mental illness – we can make them feel less isolated and less ashamed. We can let our loved ones know that we are trying to figure out what they are going through.

Dismissing the stigma requires more than sympathy or just pity for someone’s predicament. It takes empathy – the ability not only to feel sorry, but also to see the challenge from the other person’s point of view. Only then can a struggling friend start to feel less alone.

This holiday season, a loved one may be struggling with addiction or mental illness. You may find yourself at a family reunion which is uncomfortable because of it. You can also mourn the loss of someone who is not a survivor of these illnesses.

You don’t have to deal with the situation. You don’t have to pretend you can’t see or feel. Yet you can be a formidable force for good.

In recent times, Ohioans have heard a lot about the stigma associated with addiction and mental illness – how this stigma is not only cruel, but actually prolongs suffering by discouraging people with health issues. behavioral research to find the treatment that might help them get better.

In November, Ohioans began seeing the new public education campaign, “Beat the Stigma.” The initiative was created by the Ohio Opioid Education Alliance and its many public and private partners. Anti-stigma messages emphasize that drug addiction and mental illness are chronic illnesses, resulting in large part from genetic and environmental factors. Too often, however, we blame people for these conditions, seeing them as evidence of moral weakness or the consequence of poor choices.

The campaign urges Ohioans to do three things:

· Question what you know about addiction.

· Be aware that a family history of drug addiction is the most potent risk factor for addiction.

· Take care of your mental health, as mental health problems increase the risk of addiction.

It is a season of giving, and no form is more important than acting with empathy and grace towards those in need.

Grace is defined in many religious traditions as a favor offered freely, unexpectedly and undeservedly. When joy is simply beyond reach, grace and empathy are invaluable gifts.

Scott S. Osiecki is CEO of the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board.

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