People react to tragedy in various ways. One New Jersey mother harnessed her anguish over her son’s suicide to benefit others in her community. 

Suicide is a uniquely tragic cause of death, and one that could potentially be prevented in many cases if the right resources and support were available and easy to access. Susan Sonnema recognized this unmet need and began a support group for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues. 

The Growing Mental Health Crisis in America 

Mental health was a growing problem in America before the pandemic. It’s only gotten worse since. About 13% of Americans report turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the stresses caused by the new COVID reality. 

The loneliness caused by social distancing didn’t help any. Many people, such as Sonnema’s son Mike Scanlan, previously relied on in-person meetings to manage their conditions. Many groups have employed video chats and apps to help members get the support they need. However, such mediums don’t reach everyone — such as those lacking computer access or are displaced due to homelessness. 

Furthermore, living conditions have become tenser for many, putting additional strains on supportive relationships. It’s natural to want to gloss over the problem — such as mom’s just pouring an extra glass of wine because of the pressure at work. However, substance use causes biochemical changes in the brain that drive you back to the bottle again and again, creating addiction. 

Finally, people have many reasons to suffer mental health crises even if they don’t turn to drugs and alcohol to escape them. Home prices have increased 118% since 1965, while incomes grew a paltry 15%. Even folks who didn’t lose their jobs or quit during the mass resignation feel increasingly hopeless that their best efforts will ever amount to anything resembling a middle-class life. 

Many people who rent now face stiff increases forcing them out of their homes, and there aren’t a lot of affordable alternative units available. Pair that with soaring grocery costs, and even people who own property struggle to feed their families. Those who never got a chance to grow wealth are increasingly priced out of living spaces — and coping with daily hunger and looming homelessness are stressors enough to break the most optimistic and hardy. 

The Mike Project 

Sonnema’s son Mike was a handyman who appeared to have it all together. However, when the pandemic restricted his access to the meetings he relied on for support, he died by suicide. She harnessed her grief to start a charity that offers sessions at Rockpoint Community Church in Haledon, New Jersey. It meets at the church from 7-8 p.m. on Thursday evenings. 

The group recently hosted its first in-person fundraiser. Next month, it plans to commence a third support group for children. Sonnema hopes to provide the type of resources her son needed but could not obtain amid the pandemic.

Things You Can Do to Promote Addiction and Mental Health Awareness

You don’t have to launch a charity to do your part to support addiction and mental health awareness. Here are some ways to be an ally to those who struggle with these issues every day:

  • Use and encourage kind language: Separate the disease from the person who has it. For example, instead of referring to someone as an addict, you can say they have a substance use disorder. There’s much more to them as complete individuals than their body’s reaction to drugs or alcohol.
  • Educate yourself about mental illness: You can find many great online resources explaining addiction mechanisms. Learn how brain disorders operate similarly to injuries or diseases to other organs. 
  • Encourage healthy habits: Many physical health habits, like exercising, practicing yoga and eating whole foods, also support positive mental health. 
  • Share your story if you’re able: If you struggle with or successfully overcome a mental health issue, consider sharing your story with others to let them know they are not alone. 

Strength Through Addiction and Mental Health Support 

Sonnema found strength in grief by starting a charity to honor her son’s legacy. Increasing awareness of addiction and mental health issues allows everyone to help people get the support they need to thrive.

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About Author

Mia Barnes is a lifestyle and wellness writer and the Editor in Chief at When Mia isn't writing, she can usually be found reading, jogging or volunteering at one of her local animal shelters.

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