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By Jennifer Angrisano-Gall

Society likes labels. While this may be convenient, it is almost always incorrect. As a behavioral health counselor, I know only too well how misconceptions may be damaging.

When I started in counseling, I had my masters in psychology, knew the disorders, the symptoms and treatment. What I quickly found out was that what people looked like on paper and who they are can be very different.

Chemical dependency and mental illness are diseases, but there are stigmas attached that do not apply to many other illnesses. For example, if you were diagnosed with cancer you could expect to receive empathy, compassion and support. People with behavioral health issues don’t always have this type of understanding. Many are called “crazy,” “weak” and “criminal” not only in the community but by their own families.

Another difference is that behavioral health disorders do not always make sense. It is easy to personalize behaviors rather than separate the disease from the individual. The first part of my counseling experiences was with individuals with schizophrenia. Its symptoms include hearing voices, seeing visions and delusional thought patterns. If the average person heard a voice they would respond to it. That behavior is sane. The disease that caused the voice is not. These brave people learn to distinguish what is real and what are symptoms. They often do this with limited support and understanding.

The same principle applies to addiction. By the time an individual gets to treatment, there have been consequences, however the guilt and shame they feel can stand between reaching out for treatment.

Many times while in active addiction, clients engage in harmful lifestyle choices, and the process of coming clean means dealing with that. It can be extremely difficult to own up to these behaviors, particularly when they conflict with the client’s sense of morality.

There comes the split. While the client’s experiences may be different, addiction looks the same regardless of race, sexual orientation or age. As counselors, we educate, explore, reframe, guide and most importantly listen. We believe in the recovery process. We see our clients in terms of possibilities and we help them see it with us.

There are many little steps that lead to the biggest goal of sustained remission and those steps should be acknowledged and honored. When possible, families should be involved in the treatment process. Families of those in treatment also need support and understanding. Many feel guilt and shame around the struggles of their loved ones and need the reassurance that their loved one’s disease is not their fault.

Overall increased education is needed to promote compassion and understanding that is needed for healing.

Jennifer Angrisano-Gall is a chemical dependence counselor at Lakeshore Behavioral Health.