…We need society to be willing to look at the individual as someone with a disease, rather than a person with a character flaw. Understand that people with addiction are not defined by their disease and that with the right treatment, people can and do recover from addiction every single day.
Gary Mendell is the founder and CEO of Shatterproof. After losing his son Brian to addiction in 2011, Gary founded Shatterproof to spare other families the tragedy his had suffered. Mr. Mendell spent decades as an entrepreneur. He founded HEI Hotels & Resorts, a multi-billion-dollar company that oversees a portfolio of approximately 70 first class hotels. He raised and managed 1.2 billion dollars in discretionary capital from some of the most prestigious universities in the United States and managed more than 2 billion dollars in assets. He is also a former trustee and president of Starwood Lodging Trust. That business-world experience gives him a unique perspective in running a non-profit organization like Shatterproof. He is a frequent speaker on how our society can end the stigma unjustly associated with addiction, has been honored numerous times for his leadership related to reversing the course of the opioid epidemic, testified in front of the President’s Commission on Combating Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, has been a guest several times on CNBC and MSNBC to provide his perspective on commonsense solutions to the opioid epidemic, and his opinions are frequently reflected in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the Washington Post. Mr. Mendell also serves on the Executive Advisory Board of the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI). Mr. Mendell received his B.S. from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and his MBA with distinction from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Before I founded Shatterproof, I had a successful career in business. But throughout that career, my older son, Brian, struggled with addiction. Brian struggled for ten years, cycling through seven different treatment programs and rarely receiving care based on proven research. In October of 2011, after going 13 months without using a substance but seeing no real end to his suffering, Brian took his life. I believe what pushed him over the edge was the shame his addiction made him feel. Brian’s death devastated me, and I began to look at what I could do to honor Brian and help others struggling with the disease of addiction. Even though I could afford what I thought at the time was “good care,” I realized that the systems, procedures, and protocols proven by extensive research are not being implemented in our current addiction treatment system. I also realized that the issue is a huge one: Only one in ten people with a substance use disorder receive any treatment at all, and far fewer can access treatment based on the proven science. I saw a big need for a well-funded organization devoted to implementing effective protocols and programs related to prevention, treatment, and recovery, to changing public policies, and to supporting families. In 2013, I founded Shatterproof to do just that.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I think the same is true regarding the stigma around substance use disorder. Think about the fact that only 1 in 10 people who need treatment seek treatment. I believe that is largely due to shame and stigma. Sadly, people suffering from both behavioral health and substance use disorders fear that they will be labeled or judged as weak people with no moral compass. They fear that they will lose their jobs if they seek treatment or lose the respect of their family and or friends. This shame and stigma are holding people back from getting the treatment they desperately need.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental/SUD wellness?
Shatterproof is working to end stigma through many initiatives. Our Rise Up Against Addiction 5k Walk/Run events are coming to seven cities around the country this fall. It’s the largest event series in the country dedicated to addiction. It helps people in recovery, people currently struggling, and those who’ve lost loved ones to this disease realize that people care about them and that they’re not alone. We get thousands of people who come out to these events, and the sense of community and comradery is amazing. Another major initiative is our Shatterproof Addiction Wellness at Work program, which is a proactive education program for employers that will reduce stigma and help employees feel comfortable seeking treatment when they need it.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from substance abuse disorder?
I think all three could start by being willing to look at the individual as someone with a disease, rather than a person with a character flaw. Understand that people with addiction are not defined by their disease and that with the right treatment, people can and do recover from addiction every single day.