As early afternoon sun streamed through his office windows, Gary Mendell swiveled in his chair to peer at his monitor, his left hand reaching for the mouse. He soon found what he was seeking.
"This is where you will really get to know Brian," he said, smiling, as he stopped at his son's image. "You'll get the whole story."
In the photo, his son, Brian Mitchell Mendell, is leaning against a rock, grinning, one hand tucked into his pocket. With a click, one learns that he was compassionate, kind, funny and given to philosophical musings. But he also carried a heavy heart when it came to his more than 10-year struggle against the disease of addiction. He was only 25 when he took his life in October 2011, after 13 months clean.
"We thought we were home free," Mendell said. "But, this is a hard, very insidious disease."
Last year, Mendell launched the nonprofit organization Shatterproof in an effort to educate people about the cost of addiction and spare other families the pain he felt after losing Brian. "This is a huge national health issue," Mendell said. "I had no idea it was so prevalent. If you had asked me how many other fathers in Easton had a son who was addicted, I would have thought I was the only one. But, you see, no one talks about it."
For the past year or so, Mendell has been talking about it to as many people as he can. His goal is to make Shatterproof a national public health resource, similar to the American Cancer Society or the American Lung Association. Those organizations have had a major impact on their respective causes by raising funds for research, educating people about treatment options and creating awareness about risk factors. Mendell and his team of scientific, medical, business and public policy leaders want to do the same for the disease of addiction.
"The solutions are clear -- prevention, treatment and recovery," Mendell said during a 2013 address at the Clinton Foundation Health Matters Conference held in La Quinta, Calif. "We will provide resources to families. We will ensure parents know what puts their children at risk. We will move research off of scientists' shelves into our commuinities where they belong. We will pressure policy makers for legislative changes that make common sense."
It is estimated that one in 10 Americans, or more than 23 million, over the age of 12 is addicated to drugs (including alcohol), according to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In Connecticut, statistics recently released from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner showed that drug-related deaths in 2013 were at their highest point in nearly 10 years, with the bulk of those deaths involving opiates -- which can include illicit drugs as well as prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin. Mirroring a national trend, more people die from drug poisoning in Connecticut than they do from motor vehicle crashes.
For Mendell, those numbers indicate that society is not doing enough to prevent a disease whose effects can last a lifetime, even for those who successfully receive treatment.
"Until it hits home, people think it is somebody else's problem," said Dr. Peter Rostenberg, a New Fairfield internist and addiction specialist, who last year received an award from SAMHSA for his office-based opioid treatment program. However, he said drug use, particularly heroin, for instance, has increasingly shifted from poor, urban centers to white, suburban middle-class and upper-class enclaves.
It is estimated that about 135,000 deaths a year in the United States are directly attributed to drugs, according to a five-year study by CASA. It is the same study that found addiction is still largely misunderstood, despite research that has shown it to be a chronic disease that causes permanent changes to the brain.
Mendell attributes the disconnect to the stigma associated with addiction. He said people continue to see it as a problem brought on by lack of willpower or moral failure. Through Shatterproof, he wants to erase that perception and give this treatable disease the attention it deserves.
Mendell said he believes his son felt great shame when it came to his disease, and bore the guilt of what he was doing to his family and friends. "The Brian I knew was a kid who wouldn't step on an ant -- the one who was always caring for people," Mendell said. "This was a kid who crawled under a fence at Yankee Stadium when he was 8 to give a homeless person a quarter."
But Brian also was a kid who tried marijuana. After his first exposure at 13, his father said, he quickly became addicted and moved on to more dangerous drugs. At the time of his death, Brian had been clean for 13 months and had tried multiple treatments and rehabilitation programs to get better.
"It is our hope to prevent as many children as we can from becoming addicted," said Mendell, who left his job as CEO of Norwalk-based HEI Hotels & Resorts, a multimillion-dollar hotel investment company of which he remains chairman, to focus his energy on Shatterproof. "For those who are addicted, we want to spend millions more research dollars ... and, we want to help parents and others give the love and compassion that anyone with a disease deserves."
Ginger Katz, who launched the Norwalk-based nonprofit drug prevention organization Courage to Speak Foundation 18 years ago after her son Ian died of an accidental overdose of heroin and valium, said it is important for parents, and others, to speak up about the dangers of addiction, advocate for change and counter the blame and shame that so often is associated with addiction. "Ian was a good kid who made an unhealthy decision to use drugs," she said. "If all the parents who have lost a child got together and spoke out, we would make a dent in a problem that is so enormous."
It is clear that the pain remains when Mendell talks about Brian, but one also can hear a father's hope that his son's compassionate nature will live on in the people and families the organization helps to save. "This is about uniting millions of Americans around the cause to end the stigma and empower them to create change," he said.
Christina.firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @xtinahennessy
What you can do ...
Shatterproof, a new national organization that is committed to drug prevention, education, research and advocacy, will be asking others to join in its efforts to increase awareness and resources in the fight against addition by taking a leap of faith.
In 20 cities across the United States, people of all ages will come together to rappel off high-rise buildings, and, in the process, raise funds for the nonprofit's efforts to protect children from developing addiction to alcohol or other drugs and ending the stigma and suffering of those affected by this disease.
There will be one in Hartford on July 29 and another in White Plains on Aug. 1. You can find out more about the events at http://www.shatterproof.org (click on upcoming events).
Alcohol and other drug addictions take more than 135,000 lives every year in the United States -- 370 people every day, 15 every hour.
There were 2.4 million persons aged 12 or older who had used marijuana for the first time within the past 12 months in 2012; this averages to 6,600 new users each day. More than one million of those first-time users began prior to the age of 18.
It is estimated that in the past month more than 31 percent of Connecticut's 12 to 20 year olds consumed alcohol.
The introduction of drugs can have profound and long-lasting consequences on preteens, teens and young adults whose prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that regulates reason and impulses) is typically not fully developed until they are 25.
Similar to other diseases, addiction is associated with risk factors, including genetics by some estimates 40 to 60 percent, environment (including peer pressure and parental involvement) and one's cognitive and physical life stage -- it has been found that the earlier one starts, it is more likely to lead to more serious abuse.
-- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Institute on Drug Abuse and Centers for Disease Control