Georgia expands effort to fight stigma around addiction, recovery

Officials say destigmatizing addiction and mental health is just one key part of the state’s overall push to better reach Georgians who are struggling, and to connect them with treatment.

Nick Nesmith / WABE

The state is expanding its efforts to fight the stigma that often surrounds addiction, promoting recovery with a new public education campaign launched Thursday at the Capitol.

Georgia Recovers, the new social media-based campaign, is designed to share the personal stories of Georgians in recovery in their own words, distributed using video and other digital and social media platforms.

The campaign also provides information for others struggling with substance use, including links to the 9-8-8 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  

The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities oversees the initiative, a partnership with the national nonprofit advocacy group Shatterproof, which focuses on raising awareness of addiction, treatment and recovery.

“By showing the faces and sharing the experiences of people impacted by substance use disorder, we can build empathy and compassion,” said Jody McIntosh, who directs Shatterproof’s stigma-reduction initiative.

Destigmatizing addiction and mental health is one key part of the state’s overall push to better reach Georgians who are struggling, and to connect them with treatment, DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner said. 

“It has to be done on all fronts. We have to increase access, we have to increase the number of treatment beds, we have to increase the number of opportunities for people to receive treatment,” said Tanner, “because there are resources there when people are ready for them.” 

Advocates have long pushed for more treatment programs in Georgia as the addiction and mental health crisis escalates.

And the care shortage, particularly acute in rural parts of the state, is an issue that bipartisan state lawmakers have discussed in previous legislative sessions.

The landmark 2022 Mental Health Parity Act, House Bill 1013, brought the state into compliance with federal mental health parity laws and laid out a multiyear strategy for overhauling Georgia’s mental health and addiction treatment-delivery system,

During the last legislative session, lawmakers failed to pass a follow-up package of reforms, House Bill 520. Advocates are hoping the legislation gets another chance during the upcoming session beginning in January.

But Tanner said the state continues to work toward implementing some of the individual policy changes that were included in H.B. 520.

“We’ve already met with 27 sheriffs in Southwest Georgia [about programs to reach jail inmates affected by addiction]. We’ve established the forensic advisory committee on the Behavioral Health Reform Commission. They’ve already had two meetings that’s underway. So we’re moving forward with mental health, behavioral health,” Tanner said.

Bipartisan officials said a top priority this year is growing Georgia’s workforce of mental health and addiction specialists around the state.  

Initial steps toward bolstering the lagging workforce have included surveys to collect data on critical service gaps and inpatient bed shortages around the state, creating a loan-forgiveness program for mental and behavioral health professionals who agree to practice in underserved communities.