Two hands with glitter and streams and a floating heart with different symbols of peace, love, accessibility. Represents being able to create safe spaces for recovery mental health addiction by carrying it within you to offer others.

Safe Spaces for Mental Health, Addiction, and Recovery

Creating Safe Spaces, Reducing Stigma, and Fostering Support

The need for safe spaces surrounding mental health, substance use, addiction, and recovery continues to grow. While we have seen numerous stigma reduction efforts nationwide, there is still significant discomfort talking about these significant life experiences. This article will provide an overview of how safe spaces can be created in every environment and the necessity for the average person, not just healthcare professionals, to take action to make sure others have a place to go for help, support, or a listening ear free of judgment, punishment, or fear.

Understanding Safe Spaces

A safe space, in general, is a setting/environment in which a person can be their authentic self without fear of discrimination, harassment, or emotional harm. Safe spaces for mental health, addiction, substance use, and recovery, similarly, are spaces in which those topics are not judged, where the person is not shamed, and where empathy is abundant. There is intentionality in safe spaces – a deliberate effort to foster a sense of security, acceptance, and mutual respect. As a result, the person can be vulnerable and open about their experiences and needs. The majority of safe spaces are formal programs, but that limits the availability of support and acceptance to only those entities when we all could benefit from safe spaces everywhere. Truly safe spaces take into consideration the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental safety of the person. This means thinking about images depicted, language used, noises heard, and resources provided. 

Benefits of Safe Spaces

Regardless of the nature of the space, safe spaces offer a variety of benefits that contribute to the overall wellbeing of an individual. When considered in the context of mental health, addiction, and recovery, these spaces may be the only place the person feels secure asking for help or expressing a need. Let’s look at three specific benefits of these spaces:

  1. Reduced Stigma and Isolation: We know that, sadly, significant stigma and shame continue to surround addiction, mental health, and recovery. This can lead a person to avoid acknowledging their needs and refraining from interacting with others out of fear of judgment or ridicule. By providing a safe space, we are sending the message that the person can be whomever they are without fear of repercussion. When there is a safe space, people are less likely to withdraw and isolate. And as we all learned from COVID-19, social isolation is extremely detrimental to wellbeing.
  2. Increased Access to Support: Let’s be clear – the role of a safe space is not solely to provide services, referrals, or references. The is so much power in simply existing as a place of acceptance. However, for those who are seeking assistance, the existence of safe spaces break down barriers to awareness of services and even accessing care.
  3. Empowerment and Self-Efficacy: When someone has a safe space to be themselves, their self-esteem improves. Perhaps while in that space, they’ll learn about a helpful resource, show kindness to another person, or experience a sense of pride for engaging in a space that embraces them. This can all contribute to an increased sense of empowerment and self-efficacy. Think about it, if you have become accustomed to being told, or the message implied, that you’re “bad” or “wrong” for an aspect of your life and then find a place of acceptance and empathy, wouldn’t you, too, feel empowered? That who you are IS enough, that you DO matter?

How to Create a Safe Space

Safe spaces can be offered anywhere, and should be everywhere. There are no physical building requirements for a safe space, sometimes all it takes is the ambiance of acceptance. Here are some ways to facilitate the provision of a safe space.

Physical Safety

  • Secure Environment: Ensure that the space is free from potential hazards. Create safety protocols to ensure the physical safety of the person. 
  • Address Potential Concerns: If someone is fearful of others hearing, take time to explain how conversations are kept private.
  • Accessibility: Provide ramps, elevators, accessible restrooms, and other accommodations to eliminate any discomfort or exclusion of the individual.
  • Cleanliness: Maintain a clean environment.
  • Amenities: Consider providing things such as water and healthy snacks. (Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs)

Emotional and Mental Safety

  • Non-Judgmental Environment: You cannot simply say it’s non-judgmental, the actions and words of all in the space must demonstrate true acceptance and lack of judgment. Know the proper terminology and language to avoid accidental stigmatization. 
  • Supportive Atmosphere: Validate the person’s experience, don’t interrogate. Offer resources when needed and wanted.
  • Clear Communication: Don’t make an assumption that you know what they mean or that they understand you. Confirm what you heard and ask if they have any questions. Encourage open dialogue to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.
  • Conflict Resolution: Promote a culture of forgiveness and reconciliation. 
  • Trauma-Informed: Be mindful of potential trauma experiences and possible triggers. 
  • Eliminate Stress: Create a calm and soothing environment. 
  • Encourage Self-Care: Empower the person to spend time taking care of themselves.

Spiritual Safety

  • Respect for Beliefs: Acknowledge and accept diverse beliefs. Avoid imposing your own. Ask thoughtful questions to take their beliefs into consideration.
  • Inclusive Practices: Provide the opportunity for their traditions and practices to be facilitated.
  • Holistic Recognition: Take into account the various components of spirituality.
  • Trauma-Informed: The person may have experienced spiritual or religious trauma – be attentive to and respectful of their engagement or lack thereof in spiritual activities.


Whether it’s a formal setting, an online community, or a park bench – we can make any space safe for individuals with mental health, addiction, substance use, and/or recovery experiences. Regardless of where we are, we carry within us the ability to provide a safe space by being empathetic and non-judgmental. If we all commit to making whatever space were are in safe, we will be making tremendous strides forward to ensuring all who want or need support are able to obtain it.

Looking for a safe space?

Connect with a peer specialist.

Visit Syndicate 12, an online environment designed specifically for individuals with mental health and/or substance use lived experience.

Creating Safe Spaces, Reducing Stigma, and Fostering Support The need for safe spaces surrounding mental health, substance use, addiction, and recovery continues to grow. While we have seen numerous stigma reduction efforts nationwide, there is still significant discomfort talking about these significant life experiences. This article will provide an overview of how safe spaces can […]

Continue reading "Safe Spaces for Mental Health, Addiction, and Recovery"
Swirls of chaos with pictures of different emotions and experiences to reflect the complexity of grief

Understanding Loss and Grief To Support Others

Loss and Grief: Experienced By All, Discussed by Few

I love discussing loss and grief. Yes, you read that right; I get excited to discuss two topics that most people avoid. The other night I had the privilege of leading a discussion among peer specialists about providing support for someone experiencing loss and grief and it was amazing. The reason I love discussing this topic so much is because of the incredible, positive impact you can have on someone if you can be present with them during their loss and grief journey. Many feel so alone in grief, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. Despite the fact that every human encounters these experiences, we, as a collective group, struggle to be supportive and understand what’s occurring. What follows is information meant to help raise awareness of the realities of loss and grief. There are various areas of thought on these topics, and what’s discussed below is not all inclusive and is heavily biased from my education and work in the field*. I’ve also included insights from some of the peers who participated in the discussion the other day. Hopefully this will spark a pursuit of further learning within you to strengthen your ability to support others through loss and grief.

*I am a licensed professional counselor in Pennsylvania. During her time providing direct care, I specialized in grief and loss.


Loss is the experience of being deprived of, or having taken away, someone or something meaningful. Yes, loss is not only the death of someone; loss occurs in more ways than most realize. Just a few examples:
  • Loss of certain dreams when you can’t continue school
  • Loss of childhood innocence for the child who witnesses violence, hears gunshots, experiences the pains of hunger
  • Loss of rights and/or freedom for the person who is convicted of a crime, even if they’ve served their “punishment”
  • Loss of physical ability due to injury, illness, etc.
While different, all forms of loss are equally valid and cannot be compared. Furthermore, loss is like a nick in the windshield, where the initial damage (loss) may be a certain size or impact, it can spiderweb to impact more and more. Many losses are not immediately realized by the person or those around them and some are never recognized by others. Loss denotes any event where there is a significant absence of something or someone previously integral to a person’s life or something that was hoped to be part of their life. It’s important to recognize that not all losses are sad. There’s an expectation that loss will result in feelings of sadness and despair, but that isn’t always true nor is it required. 
Loss of Control
As Peer Specialist Talynn Smykle- feeling a loss of control  encompasses everything that happens when you experience a loss. Losing something or someone can make us feel out of control and lead us to try and regain control, even if it isn’t the healthiest choice or best thing to do in the long-run. The sense of being out of control of our life, our world, can be extremely scary and should be recognized as a potential contributor to the grief experienced. 

Whenever there's a loss, in any way, shape, or form, it can touch your life in so many different ways that you didn't even think were important until it actually happens.


Grief is the emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral responses to loss; the experience of the loss. Even though it is a universal experience, grief is unique to each individual and how is presents can vary by loss, nature of the relationship, coping skills, previous experiences with grief, and so many more variables. For example, identical twin sisters could both experience the death of their father and have two completely different grief experiences. Because of how individualized grief is, it’s important that, when offering support to someone grieving, we never push what works for us or what we think is “best.”

“Normal” (Uncomplicated) Grief

The “typical” emotional, cognitive, and physical reactions following a loss. A relatively predictable pattern of acute distress that gradually lessons over time. This can include feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, yearning, sleep interruptions, and appetite changes. The person gradually adapts to the loss and begins adjusting to their new life.

Complicated Grief

An extended grieving period that interferes with the person’s ability to function in daily life. There is difficulty or an inability to accept and adjust to the loss. The feelings described for “normal” grief are experienced at a greater extent – debilitating sadness, feelings of emptiness or meaninglessness, inability to engage in happy memories and stories.

Anticipatory Grief

Grief experienced before an impending loss. Mourning begins prior to the loss of someone or something. These feelings can include fear, anxiety, sadness, and a feeling of dread. This may help with the grief experience after the loss, and it may not. You may have heard someone say “it’s easier because they knew it was coming.” A loss is a loss, regardless of advanced notice or sudden occurrence. Anticipatory grief can itself be complicated and deserves as much support as post-loss grief experiences.

Disenfranchised Grief

When grief is not acknowledged or socially supported because of the nature of the loss or relationship. Examples include:

  • Death by suicide due to the stigma associated with stigma
  • Death of a former romantic partner 
  • Incarceration of a loved one
  • Infertility

Individuals may feel like they have to hide their grief or that their grief isn’t valid. This can lead to increased feelings of isolation and sadness. Because of the lack of social support and recognition of the loss/grief, healing can be challenging. Acknowledging and respecting the loss/grief is essential when providing support. 

A loss of life is a loss of life. This is a human life we're talking about.

Stages and Tasks

Stages of Grief

Many people have heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ theory of the five stages of grief. While significant, it’s important to understand that Kubler-Ross’ work was studying the experience of individuals dying and their grief experience, not the grief experience of those mourning the death. For that reason and others, this article will not be discussing the stages of grief. However, if it is a theory that helps you or someone you are supporting in navigating their grief, then embrace it and use what works for you/them. David Kessler, who studied under Kubler-Ross, has expanded upon her work in his book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Marti described this book is extremely impactful and beneficial, so I take that as a great recommendation. To learn more about the stages of grief, you can visit

Tasks of Mourning

I personally prefer William Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning, as it is less linear, more culturally inclusive, and places the person grieving as more active in their grief rather than passively having grief happen to them. Unfortunately, there isn’t a verified source of Worden’s work online, but a helpful resource can be found here. It’s important to understand the tasks are not linear, although they are numbered. Instead, a person can revisit tasks, experience multiple at the same time, and have the tasks recur in the future. I personally prefer this model because it better reflect the fluidity of grief and how, in many ways, it is a life-long process and experience. While Worden’s tasks were specifically for grief following a death, they can be applied to any type of loss. The following information is all based on Worden’s book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy.

Four circle venn diagram with William Worden's Four Tasks of Mourning

Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss

The person comes to a place of recognizing the permanency of the loss. Difficulty with this task can look like denial, disbelief, magical thinking, etc. (complicated grief).

Task 2: Process the pain of the grief

Perhaps the component of grief that makes others the most uncomfortable. We cannot ignore the pain, the emotions, the thoughts. The harder we try to ignore them, the stronger and more overwhelming they will be whenever they get their chance to break through. Sitting, not speaking, not trying to “fix” anything, just sitting with a person in their grief can be the most significant act of support we can offer. Many supporters may believe that talking about the loss will be more painful. In reality, the person is going to be thinking about the loss regardless of you bringing it up, what you can offer them is a safe and supportive space to have those thoughts, recall those memories, laugh about jokes, etc.

Task 3: Adjust to a world without the deceased

We see a timeline set on grief through a predetermined allotment of bereavement days. In reality, grief is, in many ways, truly kicking in when the rest of the world “moves on.” Dependent on the loss, there can be a significant impact on the day-to-day of the person. A new way of existing in the new world, a world without the person or thing that was lost, must be developed. Difficulty in this process can appear as someone who isolates to the extent of not leaving their house, never returning to work, demonstrating poor hygiene, etc. (complicated grief). Marti Blose, Certified Peer Counselor, perhaps said it best, “grief and loss necessitates the word change and we don’t like change very much. we really hold on to the things we can. and when loss is experienced, that always in some way necessitates change.” 

Task 4: Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life

The loss of someone or something does not erase the relationship or the meaning of the entity in a person’s life. That person or thing still holds meaning, it will just be in a different form after the loss. This can look like a nonprofit being started to address a loved one’s cause of death, or a commitment to take certain actions moving forward. The form of the connection doesn’t matter, what matters is that the person feels the connection. 

The same tree in two different pots to demonstrate that we adjust to a new world and find a way to continue growing and living after loss

Receive support for your grief/loss

The following peers were either mentioned above or are peers who offer grief support.

Talynn Smykle Peer Support Specialist

Talynn Smykle

Belinda Ennis Peer In Training

Belinda Ennis

Melissa Saady Certified Peer Recovery Specialist

Melissa Saady

Loss and Grief: Experienced By All, Discussed by Few I love discussing loss and grief. Yes, you read that right; I get excited to discuss two topics that most people avoid. The other night I had the privilege of leading a discussion among peer specialists about providing support for someone experiencing loss and grief and […]

Continue reading "Understanding Loss and Grief To Support Others"
Alicia Nolan, Founder of Choose To Live on Reduce The Stigma Recovery Conversations discusses suicide prevention and mental health awareness

Let’s Talk About It: Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Awareness

Reduce The Stigma - Recovery Conversations: Raising awareness of suicide prevention and mental health with Alicia Nolan, Founder of Choose To Live

Alicia Nolan, founder of Choose To Live
Talk about suicide prevention and mental health to help others feel supported

Suicide and mental health – let’s bring these topics out of the shadows because keeping them as the topics we’re too uncomfortable to discuss is guaranteed to lead to more deaths. How do we do that? How do we get people talking about things that we typically avoid? Enter Alicia Nolan, founder of Choose To L;ve, a company who is raising suicide prevention and mental health awareness through thoughtful apparel. Wearing an item from Choose To L;ve sends the message that you are a safe space, that you care, that someone who is struggling can trust that you will be empathetic and nonjudgmental. Let’s all join the effort to ensure anyone and everyone who needs someone to talk to feels safe reaching out and asking for help.

Catch the full episode to hear Alicia’s personal journey through loss by suicide and the creation of a mission-driven organization. 

Are you in need of support? It’s ok to ask for help – you deserve it. 

In case of an emergency, call 911. For 24/7, free and confidential support for times of distress or crisis, call or text 988. Learn more about the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

To connect with someone with suicide and/or mental health lived experience, visit Straight Up Care and connect with a trained peer specialist who’s ready to support you. 

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Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:00)

There are many experiences and topics that society tends to avoid discussing and perhaps none more so than suicide. Today’s guest is on a mission to save lives by sparking conversations about mental health and suicide prevention through the use of purposeful and empowering apparel. Stay tuned to hear the conversation with Alicia Nolan, founder of Choose To L;ve and get ready to be inspired as we reduce the stigma.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:32)

Hello and welcome to Recovery Conversations. Today’s conversation is with Alicia Nolan, the founder of Choose to L;ve, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health awareness. Thank you for joining me today, Alicia.


Alicia Nolan (01:32)

Thank you for having me.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:46)

I have started to familiarize myself with Choose to Live and am looking forward to hear it from your perspective because as I understand, Choose to Live is the outcome of a very personal experience of yours.


Alicia Nolan (01:51)

Thank you. Yes, I started Choose to L;ve in April of 2023 after my wife died by suicide in August of 2022. I was doing personal training when she passed away and you know when I had to go back to work something that I was very passionate about was health and fitnessa nd I started to incorporate a lot of mind-body connection and mental health into the conversations with my clients. And I started to recognize how much it meant to me to be able to talk about those topics with clients. And then I started to have a pull towards something bigger. I knew that I needed to do something bigger to get people to talk more. So I came up with my brand L;ve – the “I” is a semi-colon. And the next step was trying to figure out how to get people to see my brand. And that’s when I decided to do t-shirts, which I didn’t know how to do. And it’s not in me to use third-party sources. So I started researching how to make t-shirts, what the best and most cost-effective way to make my own. Screen printing seemed to be the way to go. And I just started doing YouTube and all the research. I think I probably invested like $250 or so on equipment, just to kind of start it up. And I started making my t-shirts and I have an amazing community, friends and family that just…


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (03:20)



Alicia Nolan (03:46)

I started buying them and then I just kind of continued to grow and get more colors and now I do sublimation laser engraving and all the things. I have sweatshirts, tank tops, various colors of everything, and pride shirts. I started off doing $3 of every t-shirt going to suicide prevention, specifically Pike’s Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership located in Colorado Springs and now 10% of all of my sales goes to that organization. And in the last year, I’ve been able to raise over $2,500 just from sales.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (04:22)

That’s remarkable. As a customer, because I am proudly wearing the racer back, I had no idea that you were doing this yourself. The quality is incredible. I’m just in awe.


Alicia Nolan (04:35)

Thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah. That’s one thing like as a business owner also, like I had to be good quality. I couldn’t not have good quality. So yeah, of course.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (04:42)

You’re right. Yeah and, you know, as I was looking at the shirts and selecting which one I wanted to proudly wear, I was struck by, you know, your brand name is Live. There’s clearly that suicide prevention component there. I was also struck by how the dot of the semicolon also makes it love. And I thought that was amazing because knowing, you know,


Alicia Nolan (05:09)

So it makes sense well. And I thought it was a great somebody.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (05:16)

personal reason you’re in this, that this was an act of love. It really just stood out to me as amazing to have that dual meaning of your brand.


Alicia Nolan (05:22)

It’s amazing. Yeah, I appreciate that. And I wish I could say it was done on purpose, but it wasn’t. But I have had people ask me, is it love or is it live? And yeah, they just kind of meld together with the perfect message, I guess. I think you did. And you said people are looking at how you made your work after. And I think-


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (05:41)

They really do. And you said you were looking at how to get your brand out there and to get people talking. What was important about getting people talking? What were you hoping they’d be talking about?


Alicia Nolan (05:53)

When I first started it, it was just kind of a broad view of mental health. Um, that it’s okay to struggle and you can talk about struggling. Um, just getting people to talk, um, no matter what it is. And that’s kind of what has happened. Um, not quite unexpectedly, but on the level that I wasn’t expecting when I first started the project, uh, every last year was kind of about, uh, doing vendor events to see how um, how far I could take the brand or, you know, the response that I would get from it. Um, but the connections that I made at these vendor events were so incredibly powerful and sometimes overwhelming. Um, there were days that were just, they were emotional, emotionally draining some days, but in such a good way, like, cause you could feel that impact that you are making. You know, people see the semicolon, they see the brand and they just, they just want to talk to somebody and they’ll just come straight to my booth and they just want to share. They want to share their experience or show me their semicolon or whether it’s them who have struggled themselves or somebody that they know who has taken their life, they just want to share. And that’s what I hope people are inspired by when they see it, whether they buy it or see it on somebody else. Just building those connections and letting people know that it’s okay to talk about it.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (07:26)

I imagine that seeing the brand, seeing the semicolon, it’s also a symbol of a safe space for someone who cares either because of their personal experience or because they just are moved to care. And so you can talk to them, you can confide, you can be vulnerable, I imagine.


Alicia Nolan (07:33)

safe space for someone who cares. Yeah, and that’s a great point. Again, people come straight to it because they know what it is. A lot of people don’t know what it is and the semicolon and I get people to ask all the time. And sometimes that almost means more to me when people ask what the semicolon is. And then, you know, you get some people who see it and they, you know, they don’t want to talk about it. And that’s, you know, that’s okay, too. It’s what your comfort is. But at least, you know, like this is a safe place to share your story. Yeah, there is a lot of safety in that respect. Like you will not be judged. And I think that’s the biggest thing and that’s one of the biggest stigmas is people believe that they will be judged if they show any kind of struggling. And that’s what I hope to reduce.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (08:38)

Absolutely, and there’s the struggling, or there’s the stigma of you struggling as an individual, of someone you love struggling, of, you know, having lost someone by suicide, because that is an over, you know, I just missed. It’s kind of one of those, don’t want to touch it with the 10-foot pole topics for a lot of people, which only results in more people feeling alone and isolated and is…only going to perpetuate the pain.


Alicia Nolan (09:06)

That’s exactly right. I mean, one of my motivators behind it is not just my own mental health, having PTSD, anxiety and depression, but also because of my wife who, when she struggled or she was in her lows with her own mental health, she shut everybody out. She didn’t wanna talk to anybody. She coped in unhealthy mechanisms and that’s just what she did, and I don’t want anybody to feel that kind of isolation, that kind of hurt and struggle and the pain that you can go through mentally. I don’t want people to go through that. And that’s my purpose now is if I can save somebody else from either harming themselves or just being able to talk you know, about their own struggles. If I can just pretty much save somebody from the pain that I have felt, then it makes it all worth it.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:09)

There’s a power to obviously connection, right? Whenever we feel like there’s another person that is there 100% present, non-judgmental, there’s also a power in sharing a story for both parties, whether it’s the person hearing it who is maybe validating. They’re like,


Alicia Nolan (10:12)

the connection. Right.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:32)

It is part of that healing process for many people to be able to share their story and give their experience a new meaning.


Alicia Nolan (10:35)

that we have to share their story again.


Yeah, sharing is quite a tool that I think is almost, what do you call it? Like an unsung tool, what do you call it? Like it’s a hidden tool, it’s a hidden gem, if you will, is sharing your story with others because there is somebody out there who can relate and needs to hear that story. And that’s what I’m trying to do this year, I’m getting my story out there.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:50)



Alicia Nolan (11:06)

I’m in a couple of books now. I’ll have another book published next month. A couple of different perspectives of my story in each, but doing podcasts, getting out there, having my own podcasts, doing all the things, speaking at events, all of these things. This is what I’m doing this year. And a big reason for that is just because of the feedback that I have had from other people when they have either read my story or heard my story somewhere.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:11)



Alicia Nolan (11:35)

is just, it’s so positive. And there’s so many affirmations that have just come out of this, all good things. 99% of the time, there’s always a couple of comments, unfortunately, that people need to make and that’s okay because 99% of the time, somebody is saying, thank you. Thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for just being able to talk about it.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:02)

Right. It reduces that shame and really is a bridge out to others. And I realized that I did probably what a lot of people do, which is I move past when you share in your experience. Because there’s so much that is to live, to choose to live that is based off of the loss of your wife. And I heard, and I want to go back to you saying,


Alicia Nolan (12:08)

in supporting Fairchild.




Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:31)

I have lived experience too. Can you speak a little bit to what you have experienced in addition to the loss of your wife?


Alicia Nolan (12:38)

pertaining specifically to suicide? Okay. Yeah, absolutely. Specifically to suicide, you know, Nicole wasn’t the first person that I’ve known to take their life. I had a buddy 18 months prior to that and on active duty military I actually found somebody afterwards.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:41)

or to whatever you would be comfortable sharing.


Alicia Nolan (12:57)

Um, it was, it was the hardest time that I personally went through. Um, obviously losing the person that you knew you were going to be with forever. There was no doubt in my mind and either one of our minds like that we were going to be together forever. Uh, we had plans, we had plans that weekend. We had plans a couple of weeks out, you know, concert tickets, you know, we had plans because we were each other’s person. So, when that was gone, I personally found myself in a very dark place. And, you know, then another piece of that story is just I’ve been sober for three and a half years now. And that was something at the time that I knew that I didn’t want to get back into. So I had one of the first guys actually came after I was notified by the sheriff. He asked me what he could do. And I said, take all the alcohol, of course it was my wife’s alcohol, but I was like, take it all. You’re like, I don’t want to go down that path. I knew myself enough to know when I have gone through hard things in the past, that’s what I have done. And that’s a place that I refuse to ever see myself in again. Um, and I think that helped me remain sober helped me kind of have a clear head, even though the fogginess is real when you have traumatic events. Um, which is still not fully recovered. But I was able to just kind of work through the pain and kind of find my way forward. I try to stay away from terms like moving on. I like moving forward, personally speaking. So trying to figure out that path afterwards. And one of the most significant things after…she took her life was my community and my friends. When they asked me what they could do, I said I didn’t want to be alone. And they were with me for the first month. They stayed at my house. They were there all day. I was not alone for a moment. Well, in that first month, in that first month. So it really allowed me the opportunity to kind of just figure out life and kind of pull myself out of that darkness a little bit.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (15:17)

All right and my heart goes out to you for your experiences and, you know, doing so while also in recovery. Of course, you know, loss can be a significant risk factor for returning to any use. And also, I want to applaud you for communicating your needs. I don’t think people do that always. They feel like a burden. And I know I personally sometimes expect people to know what to do, but how can they know what I need? Sometimes I don’t know what I need, but if I have found like, wow, I don’t want to be alone, we can communicate that. Was that a hard thing for you to be able to say this is what I need?


Alicia Nolan (15:47)

you want to do it with you. Yeah I think we should be able to say, I changed that day. I changed that day. I call it my old normal and then my new normal. There are good and bad things in ways that I have changed. And when that happened, there was just kind of a switch when it came to being honest with how I was doing. From that moment, I was like, somebody asked me how I’m doing, I’m going to be honest. There’s no more, I’m good, I’m fine. There’s no more of that. If you ask me how I’m doing, I’m gonna tell you how I’m doing. Cause I mean, that’s part of the problem too. So it wasn’t after that experience, it wasn’t hard for me to tell people exactly what I needed. I think part of that too, along with trauma, I think I just had been so torn apart.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:37)



Alicia Nolan (16:53)

something happens to you. You have a new level of self-awareness. I know more about myself now than I ever thought I would. How I operate, things that I need. There’s just almost clarity, in a sense, in a weird way, about myself that I have. Yeah, it’s a very strange thing to feel prior to the event, I don’t think I necessarily knew how to express the things that I needed. I had spent a lot of my life catering an empath, so making sure everybody else is okay. You know, that’s, you know, just making sure everybody else is okay. And I think that moment just, it kind of, it kind of helped me realize that I also need help sometimes, you know, like I’m allowed to be myself or express who I am or all the things. Yeah, it’s a wild, wild experience.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (17:53)

And hearing that you served in the military as well, that is not exactly an area where you’re encouraged to be vulnerable. So I’m sure that had a lasting effect as well on the challenges of putting yourself first and asking for help. And to, you know, you said it’s part of the problem whenever we don’t communicate our needs.


Alicia Nolan (17:54)

in certain.




Thank you.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:16)

Can you elaborate on that a little bit?


Alicia Nolan (18:19)

Yeah, absolutely. One, it’s not common for people to have enough self-awareness to know what they need. My therapist tells me a lot, like, wow, like you really know how your brain’s working, operating and yourself. I’m like, yeah, I know. I just do now, but a lot of people don’t have that. And that’s kind of number one is being able to deep dive into yourself and…understand those needs. And then next is just expressing that you need help. Again, it’s still looked at as weak or a burden, as you said earlier. I’ve felt those things my entire life, starting as a kid. You know, my mom specifically, she wasn’t a very compassionate and nurturing type. So I was used to hiding how I was really feeling and not knowing how to express those. And quite literally, it wasn’t until I was 36 years old that I started to feel like, no, I can be honest about it. And it needs to be something that everybody does. And a lot of that is because of the judgment, because you’re going to get judged for being weak or you’re going to get judged for…


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (19:29)



Alicia Nolan (19:35)

whatever how you’re feeling. But it really starts with us as human beings to change how that looks. It starts with us being non-judgmental and understanding that everybody has different experiences and everybody is completely their own person and views things a different way as the next. And we also need to understand that we don’t have to fix everybody that comes to us, a person just needs you to listen. And that is the best tool that we have as human beings from one to another is just the ability to not talk about ourselves or our opinion on something, but just to listen and hear somebody out.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:16)

Yes. I mean, what else do you say to that? It’s so true. Just being able to be present and focus on the person. And that’s, I don’t think that’s ever been easy for people. It’s definitely harder whenever you have phones dinging and, you know, all these different things. And that’s when we can…you know, when people can really feel overlooked is whenever we aren’t stopping, slowing down, and just saying, I’m here. And not just, oh I’m here for you, but like, I am here, I am present, I am listening, and I am receptive, and I am here with love.


Alicia Nolan (20:58)

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, so much needs to change.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:02)

Yeah, isn’t that the truth? And we, well maybe we have an opportunity here to challenge ourselves, I’ll challenge myself, as well as everyone listening, that whenever you ask, how are you, to mean it, to be ready for those who are brave like you Alicia, who are going to say, this is how I really am. Let’s, let’s.


Alicia Nolan (21:04)



Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:25)

invite those conversations rather than being passive, oh, I don’t know, should I ask? Should I ask if they’re okay? Should I, well, it’s been a month, isn’t everything better after a month?


Alicia Nolan (21:38)

Oh my gosh, so much. Yeah. And, you know, there is understandably, there’s some people who just don’t know what to do. And you know, after my wife passed, it was very clear, the people that I could just talk to. And there were some that were just super uncomfortable, didn’t know what to say, do or anything, and that’s okay. You know, that’s just who they are.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:41)



Alicia Nolan (22:02)

And that’s okay. I love that person just as much as the next. But it was kind of apparent, like who I could absolutely just unload everything that I was going through at the time. And those who are just there to be with me, which in a lot of cases is even more of what I needed. So, yeah.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:25)

Yeah. And I’m glad that you brought up that not everyone is going to be able to be that way. I mean, for whatever reason, we all have our own histories and it could be something that triggers a pain for somebody or they just don’t know what to do and they’re fearful of doing something wrong. So they may be like, I’m going to stick to what I do know how to do. So I certainly don’t want to


Alicia Nolan (22:28)

Thanks. Yeah.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:51)

if you can make that offer, right? And be the person who just maybe is like, let’s just go for a walk. And that’s not only after the big event, right? It’s not just after the death of someone. That can be, you know, one of your components of Choose to Live is mental health awareness. That is while some, you know, reach out to someone when you see them acting a little differently too. What’s going on?


Alicia Nolan (22:55)

Thank you. Yeah, that’s the point it is not all the way to the end. That is not something that we try to do. We’ve seen it on TV, we’ve watched it on HBO. What’s going on? What is being.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:21)

Right? Be that proactive source of support, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. What do you think about that?


Alicia Nolan (23:26)

What do you think about that? Yeah, so I actually did a little training. It’s a one-day training called Mental Health First Aid. And it’s fantastic, it’s virtual. I encourage everybody to do it because it goes through exactly that, just kind of recognizing those signs, being there to listen, and then understanding what resources are available. This is a course that anybody could take. There was a lot of healthcare professionals in the one that I was in, but I was the only one that’s like my own business and this is just what I wanna do and the knowledge that I wanna spread. But it’s such a useful tool to have for, I mean, not just strangers, but your friends and family to be able to recognize those signs, but also just knowing the resources that are available in your area. Yeah, and again, just I’m going to hit that listening thing. Like you don’t even have to say anything. Sometimes just let, let somebody talk. Sometimes that’s just all they need. But, um, yeah, I encourage everybody to, to look up mental health first aid. Um, cause it, it was a great experience and I learned a lot from it.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:42)

Yeah, very neat. Oh, we’ll have to make sure we include that for everyone to be able to find. And just the work you’re doing to make this a more known and recognized and part of the daily narrative, rather than that when bad things happen, we pull it out of the metaphorical closet and recognize it and so as we start to wrap that up here, I have two questions for you. And one I’ve only ever asked the co-founder of Straight Up Care, but I think that I’m going to love hearing your response. Fast forward into the future when choose to live has become your dream of what it could be. What does that look like?


Alicia Nolan (25:20)

Oh boy. Mm-hmm. Um, on a football stadium, one, uh, um, but two, I want to be kind of the leader behind a mental health reform in the United States. That is my ultimate goal. That’s where I want to be. That’s what I want to be a part of because we have so much work to do in this industry. Um, from the cost to the inch, I mean, just the lack of help and resources. Um, it appears like there’s more resources available, but believe it or not, there’s places like schools that don’t have them available. You know, it’s just starting from my city, my County to my state and growing from there. We just have a lot of work to do. Um, but that is where I see myself. One, I want my brand everywhere. I want people to see it. Um, I call it a brand with a purpose because that’s what it is. Um, but also just kind of be part of the pack that makes a major change to our mental health care industry.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (26:39)

Please keep us all updated on how we can support that mission. It needs to happen. And then my final question for you is, if people take only one thing away from our conversation today, what would you like that to be?


Alicia Nolan (26:55)

Just one. I think the biggest takeaway I like for people to take or to carry with them at least and let it resonate with them is just that it’s okay to reach out and ask for help.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (26:57)

I know, it’s hard.


Alicia Nolan (27:14)

Of course, there’s 988 if you’re in a crisis and really need somebody to talk to. It’s okay to speak up and say how you’re really doing. And it’s very possible that a lot of people already have somebody in their mind that they could go to and know that we’ll listen. You’re not a burden ever. Even if you have to schedule a time, that’s one of the…strategies used in mental health first aid. Like if somebody comes to you and you’re about to go to a meeting, like absolutely schedule a time with that person in a couple hours if you can. You’re soon available and make sure that person is heard. So just speak out and ask for help.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (28:00)

Yes, and you know, anyone who’s out there, who’s ready and willing to be a safe space, check out Choose to Live, rep the brand. Let’s all just like have it inundated everywhere so that people are so used to seeing it and see it as a badge of that someone who cares and that I can talk to if I need to. So how can people connect with you Alicia? How can they support your work?


Alicia Nolan (28:31)

Yeah, absolutely. My website is choose to I have my shop on there. I have my blog on there, which I’m also very open about my healing journey. I have quite a few up. You can find me on Instagram, choose to is spelled out. If you search live with a semicolon on Facebook, you’ll see my live page pop up. So there’s a few, yeah, there’s a few places.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (29:00)

Great, great. Well, thank you so much for coming on, sharing with us your story, also letting us bear witness to Nicole and your love for her, and just for everything you’re doing to truly make this world a little bit better.


Alicia Nolan (29:21)

I appreciate it, likewise.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (29:23)

Alright, well everyone please share this episode so that we can spread awareness of Choose to L;ve and continue to Reduce The Stigma.

Reduce The Stigma – Recovery Conversations: Raising awareness of suicide prevention and mental health with Alicia Nolan, Founder of Choose To Live Suicide and mental health – let’s bring these topics out of the shadows because keeping them as the topics we’re too uncomfortable to discuss is guaranteed to lead to more deaths. How do […]

Continue reading "Let’s Talk About It: Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Awareness"
Sam Mason on Meet The Peer - support for all: empathy, healing and lived experience

 Support for the Support System: Empathy, Healing, and Lived Experience

Meet The Peer: Sam Mason, Peer Support Specialist

Sharing healing trust empathy support

Support comes in many forms, but few are as profound and empathetic as the insights shared by someone who has the same lived experience. Sam Mason, a peer support specialist based in South Dakota, joins host Whitney Menarcheck on Meet The Peer to share how finding the person you can trust with your story can be an essential step on the healing journey. Sam shares her experience as the loved one of someone with substance use disorder, highlighting the necessity that those who love someone with a substance use disorder be offered support themselves. Additionally, she shares her experience surviving unhealthy relationships and how stigma can stop someone from seeking the support they need.

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Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:00)
In the spotlight today is Sam Mason, a peer support specialist in South Dakota. Sam shares two perspectives, one that of the loved one of a person with substance use disorder and the other as someone who has survived unhealthy and dangerous relationships. As the loved one of someone with a substance use disorder, Sam discusses the way that we can support that person as well as others who have loved ones with a substance use disorder by doing things such as carrying Narcan. sharing her lived experience in unhealthy relationships and quite frankly dangerous relationships, Sam speaks to the lasting toll that those relationships and survival actions have on an individual and what it means to move forward. So stay tuned and get ready to be inspired as we reduce the stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:02)
Hello and welcome to Meet the Pier. With me today is Sam Mason, a peer support specialist in South Dakota. Welcome, Sam.

Sam Mason (02:11)
Thank you.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:12)
Thank you so much for joining me today. As I understand, you are a relatively new peer support specialist. You finished your training maybe a month or so ago, is that correct?

Sam Mason (02:23)
Yes, it was the beginning of March that we finished training and I was able to get my certification to be a certified peer support specialist.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:31)
So exciting, congratulations. And I want to hear about what led you to do that, but before we get there, there’s a lot of people that don’t know what peer specialists are or what they do. In your words, how would you describe what peer support is?

Sam Mason (02:34)
Thank you.

So peer support is really somebody who’s had a shared lived experience similar to the one that you’ve had and can help offer resources and offer a safe sounding board for things that you might need to share. So that way, if you need to talk to someone, there’s someone available there to help offer guidance and education about different things that might be available to help the particular circumstance you’re in.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (03:15)
That’s great. And you mentioned lived experience, shared lived experience. That is the key component of peer services. It’s being able to talk to someone who really gets it in a different way. And so, of course, then that means you have certain lived experiences that you’re going to be offering support for. And I imagine that’s part of your journey to becoming a peer specialist. What exactly is it that led you? What lived experiences do you have that you’ll be supporting others with?

Sam Mason (03:45)
So while I was growing up, I unfortunately had some experience with abuse and that led to me feeling as if that was the norm for my life and the expectancy. So as adulthood came on and I started being involved in relationships with significant others, that was kind of the bar that I had set for myself was that it was okay for me to continue being mistreated. There was a lot of sadness and depression and some self harm involved in that journey, feeling like I was not worthy and that I didn’t really need to be anyone in existence because I wasn’t beneficial to any single person on the planet. Through those relationships, I ended up in a very serious relationship with a significant other that unfortunately… led to some substance misuse for that person. And I had to support them through that journey. He went to rehab a few times while we had a family together. And it was a very difficult journey. And when I realized that I was worth more than the little bit that I thought I was worth, I had left, which is a whole lot of baggage to pack when you’re trying to start over and you’ve lived your life a whole certain way for 35 years and I had passed some of the knowledge of the way that I felt like I should be treated on to my children and that left a lot of unpacking for them if you will so we had to really grow and flourish as a family. Upon coming to South Dakota, there was some violence that I witnessed, which also caused additional trauma and a lot of setbacks. And while moving closer to the family that I had, it opened some doors for relationships that hadn’t been there when I was younger, but it also opened the doors to some relationships that had been in existence when I was younger. So that had become. continued journey to try to work through those things. While here in South Dakota in the last 20 years, I have had a couple loved ones that have had some trouble with substance misuse that I have been able to support and help through that situation. Kind of really being a difficult spot sometimes to know where you should stand and how to best support somebody who is suffering that way. I had to make some really hard decisions during that time, but things did pan out for the better now and things are much better for them and our relationship has reformed in a way that it should. I also have had some experience with other people that we’ve become close to here in South Dakota that had some significant depression and one had an unsuccessful attempt on his life and I was able to help support him through that and be a strong rock for him while he worked through things and offer some resources and guidance. So those lived experiences that I have are something that I’m willing to share with other people because that whole moment where you say something out loud and the whole room goes quiet and you realize that you’ve said something that’s not the norm, I understand that. I get that.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (07:12)

Oh, well, thank you for sharing all that. There’s so much there that I would love to kind of discuss further. And I have to go right to that last thing you just said. So when you say something in the room and it goes quiet, because it’s not the norm or what have you. And I can’t help but think that it’s all I wonder if it’s because it’s not the norm or it’s because The norm is that we never talk about those things.

Sam Mason (07:46)
I think it’s a little bit of both, but I have really learned that when you’re ready, sometimes talking about those things help heal. And sometimes until you can talk to somebody you trust in a way that they understand, you can’t even begin to start the healing process. It’s as simple as sometimes even knowing where to start.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (08:09)
Right. And that trust, is there any insight you could share with us about the unique connection between two people and what it means to be able to talk to someone who’s been through a similar experience? What do you think? Why is that trust different?

Sam Mason (08:29)
That trust is different because they understand where you’re coming from.

My brother and I talk often, we grew up in that environment together. We grew up together. And so we understand. And sometimes when we’re talking, other people are just like, Whoa, but we get it. And it’s okay, because we validate each other for those feelings that your feelings are not invalid. How you feel is absolutely okay. And to have somebody who can say, it’s okay to feel that way. And let’s talk about that some more can be very beneficial in soul healing.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (09:07)
Absolutely. And when someone else has been through it, there’s, you know, we hope that everyone would be non -judgmental, especially any healthcare professional. I think, though, that it’s understandable that there can be some hesitance to be completely open because, but have they heard this yet? You know, whereas someone who’s been there, they’ve not only heard it, they’ve lived it, they’ve done it, they’ve been the one saying it.

Sam Mason (09:34)

I had that experience, unfortunately, with some healthcare providers of sharing information that was not understood very well. And there was some judgment there that was pretty quick. And unfortunately, I wish I would have met the people that I know now when I was ready to start talking about things, because it would have been a lot more beneficial for me to have somebody who said, Oh, wow, that really stinks. How do we work through this instead of, Oh, let me do this for you and prescribe a medication to make you forget it all because sometimes healing from trauma is not about forgetting it all. It can be for some people but not everybody.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:15)
Great. And I can’t help but think of how dismissive that is. Let me just write you a script for a pill to fix it. You know, this pain. I’m just gonna get my little pad out.

Sam Mason (10:28)
Yeah, because that doesn’t always do it. Sometimes it’s a lot deeper and forgiving yourself is a huge part of it.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:35)
Now, going back to some of the things you’ve shared, you talked about learning what you thought was the norm. You know, you learn, you grew up in a certain way, or you had certain experiences where that’s just how you thought things were. I think a lot of times people forget that when they’re interacting with an adult, that there’s a child that had you know, maybe misperceptions about things or their reality was a certain way. Can you talk about what it’s like to realize that what you thought was just how certain things were, that there could be a different way?

Sam Mason (11:25)
One very good example is I have something in my bedroom called a jump bag. And in that jump bag is all of our birth certificates, important documentation, everything in case we got to go. And that was something that was formed through traumatic relationships of knowing that the things that I needed to save would be there because there’s not pictures of my brother and I when we were little, because the things that needed to be saved weren’t where they needed to be. all my daughters have jump bags and it’s the norm in our house and we were talking about that in a group of people and somebody went that’s not normal and I had to think about that because that’s the normal that I’ve always had is you’re prepared to go if you got to go and those things sometimes can be overwhelming because for somebody else to say that’s not normal, that’s you’re packing a trauma bag. No, that’s not what it is to me. It’s proactive, but just those kinds of things that you do that become part of who you are. make a huge difference. People that have been through trauma that self -sabotage because we’re waiting for the other shoe to fall and we minds will drop it ourselves because we can control that and we can control that situation. Learning how to stop that behavior and work through that behavior and accept the good things that are in life and welcome good things can be a huge difficult task for somebody that’s not used to having good things be visible to them.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:47)

Right? In the control you spoke of, you know, trauma is a result of things being completely out of our control and our sense of safety being threatened, whether it’s real or perceived threat to our safety. And so as a coping skill, you naturally start taking control of what you can control because then you feel more likely to be able to survive.

You had the jump bag not only for pictures, but because you needed to be able to get out of there fast and rebuild. And so you were taking, like you said, proactive steps. Is it ideal that you have lived a life that you’ve had to have that type of jump bag and then your children had to learn to have a jump bag too? No, however, it was necessary.

Sam Mason (14:04)
and it’s just… It goes to show that when you have your own trauma, how you can pass that along without even meaning something that’s innocent of keep all your stuff together in one spot in case you got to leave right away becomes this is your life bag. Literally, as you said, a way to start over everything you need to start over is in this bag. And that was passed along inadvertently. And it hurt my feelings when I realized that maybe it was something.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:30)

Sam Mason (14:34)
something different than I thought it was. Have I gotten rid of the bag? No. Is it in the same place? Yes. Have I told anybody else to get rid of it? No. Do I sometimes tell people that having a jump bag is a good idea? Yep. Will I continue to do that? Probably.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:49)
Yeah, I mean, the reality is that there are people who should have a jump bag. We can’t, it’s not appropriate to look down on someone for having that jump bag. We need to recognize there is a reason and we need to appreciate and respect that reason.

Sam Mason (15:10)
And that’s the benefit of a peer support specialist. Having that lived experience so that they can identify and understand what you’re trying to say because they’ve been there is a huge benefit because there’s not judgment. It’s not, oh my gosh, this happened to you? It’s how do we help here? What can we do to make this better? That’s the benefit.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (15:34)
Absolutely. And you mentioned having loved ones that have had their struggles with substance use. And we don’t often think about anyone other than the individual with a substance use disorder or the addiction or mental health needs as the one who could benefit from peer services. That’s who we think of. In reality, though, the loved ones, the people who’ve been impacted as well, not only

Do they, you know, not only can they access it, but they deserve it and probably aren’t receiving the support that they may need.

Sam Mason (16:14)
And I think that’s because it’s such a stigma to say that I have a loved one that misuses substances. It’s such a stigma to say that out loud. I had a mom who was a friend that had a daughter that was having some difficulty and she carried Narcan. And because I knew this young lady, I started carrying Narcan. And…

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:24)

Sam Mason (16:38)
That was as a preventative because I needed her to know she wasn’t alone. It was okay. There isn’t going to be any judgment. It’s just how do we be prepared for what we need to be prepared for. And that stigma of being able to say that out loud in a safe environment of I don’t have this problem right now, but someone I love does and I don’t know how to help them is so very important in order to be able to help the person overcome whatever they’re going through.

because they need a solid support system too. So the support system needs a support system.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (17:14)
Yes, absolutely. And you think about how much energy a loved one exerts just worrying and the toll that can take on them, the likely sacrifice of self -care. And so to have someone who can call them out from a place of true understanding.

will truly help them, you know, maybe the outcome with their loved one won’t be any different. However, their ability to continue to cope, to accept, that will be impacted by that peer.

Sam Mason (17:55)
Absolutely, absolutely. And sometimes when you’re in the position of having a loved one, there’s a lot of guilt.

Somebody needs to say, you don’t have to carry that guilt. This is what it is. It’s not your decision, but how do we help support you through this? And also, a peer support specialist having resources, that’s the great thing is maybe they know something at hand that will be beneficial and help all the way around. Because if you feel good and you feel healthy and you feel supported, then you’re better able to support the people that you love as well.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:28)
Absolutely. And then you think about with that guilt comes the sense that I can’t put boundaries or I have to keep trying and I’m a trained professional counselor. I can talk to a client about boundaries, but I don’t know what it’s like to have maybe a child with a substance use disorder. I do have friends in recovery.

But I’ve never been in the situation where I’ve had to put that boundary as a result of their substance use. And so I’m sure coming from someone like me, you know, the degree professional, it doesn’t have the same thing. And I wouldn’t blame someone for thinking, what the hell do you know? Right?

Sam Mason (19:16)
And you know, if it’s a partner…

And you have to set those boundaries because you can’t do anything any different. Are you sacrificing somebody who helps support your family? Are you sacrificing something that’s bigger? Are your finances going to be unstable? Are you wrecking a family? You know, there’s all these things that fall into play. And if it would happen to be your child, it’s kind of the same parameters. How do you tell a child, you can’t have anything to do with me right now because I am enabling you and I’m not helping you?

The amount of guilt and hurt and feelings that you violated trust while you’re trying to create a boundary to keep yourself safe and protect your own peace can be overwhelming.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:04)
Right, right. And I think, you know, we hear that term enabling, don’t be an enabler, really doesn’t reflect the challenge that that is and the emotional pain that it, believe me, I think if anyone could snap their fingers and help their loved one reach a better place in their life, they would do it. They would much rather do that than enable, I say in quotes.

Um, all of those actions are out of love and it’s not easy to stop that. I’m sure. And so I can see the significant value to talk to someone who’s put those boundaries, who knows what that anxiety is probably like.

Sam Mason (20:55)
It’s a loved one. It’s someone you love and that’s conflict within itself. It can be very, very difficult and very hard and everybody’s circumstance is going to be a little bit different. And that’s something that’s beneficial to being a peer support specialist as well, because you do have that lived experience. And so it’s not so surprising when somebody says, well, this happened versus when you’re somebody who might just be coming from a clinical background. And it might seem that each situation is very similar.

when in reality you peel that onion back and it’s not similar at all.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:30)
No, absolutely. Oh, yes. Just my head is going with how important this is and how overlooked of a population that can be supported by peers. So I’m excited to spread awareness through, you know, what you have shared and continue showing that, you know, lived experience, whether it’s mental health addiction, whether it’s trauma or

Anything in life is a valuable asset to help others.

Sam Mason (22:06)
Absolutely, and that’s again the great thing about being a peer support specialist. You can help somebody in a way that you didn’t even know you could help them.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:14)
Right, right. And so as we kind of start wrapping up, I want to ask you my two final questions that I ask everyone. Can you share a stigma that you have experienced and what would you like us to know about it? That could be a word that was used, an assumption made about you.

Sam Mason (22:38)
They’re a cutter. That person is a cutter.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:40)
They’re a cutter.


Sam Mason (22:44)
Why would you be defined by something that you do to try to alleviate, alleviate emotional pain when you can’t figure out another way? It’s kind of like being diagnosed with something that’s not a diagnosis. If you have diabetes, you don’t just become diabetic. You know, it’s, it’s a diagnosis. It’s not who you are. It’s a portion of your life at that time, maybe for a long time.

but the real reason is finding out the background of it. So I think those kinds of self -harm behaviors create a huge stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:25)
Absolutely. Oh, I hate. And I just think about the way the tone that’s probably used with that, the judgment and dismissive and don’t want to go near that kind of mentality.

Sam Mason (23:42)
Absolutely, absolutely of they they cut they’re a cutter. So therefore they’re gonna kill themselves eventually that’s not necessarily what it is and having an unsuccessful attempt on your own life doesn’t label you for the rest of your life either and unfortunately sometimes when people have mental health and they’re not understood it compromises the mental health even more because you feel even more alone.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:10)
Absolutely. Stigma can be the reason people don’t seek help because they’ve had experiences like you had whenever you were offered a prescription, like someone who may be over here being referred to by a nurse as an addict or a druggie, a cutter. That can be the reason why the next time someone needs help, they don’t ask for it because they haven’t felt supported when they have previously kind of gone down that route.

Sam Mason (24:37)
Absolutely, and hopefully we can help fix that for some people and advocate for some people so that they don’t feel that stigma when they decide they want to find some additional help or they need additional help.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:49)
Yes. Well, for that person who is listening or watching us have this discussion and they’re having a difficult time right now, what would you like them to hear?

Sam Mason (25:03)
they’re not alone.

even when you are in the darkest of the room, the lights can be turned back on. Sometimes it just takes the right person to walk in and open the door enough that you can see the light to find the light switch.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:20)
Oh, that’s a beautiful image to think about. And so, Sam, I can’t thank you enough for sharing being open and talking about so many different things about your life and what you are going to be doing to support others. So just thank you for taking the time and sharing your story.

Sam Mason (25:39)
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I appreciate your time a lot.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:43)
Thank you. And if you are interested in receiving peer support services from SAM, visit And you can find the link in our show notes. Thank you and have a wonderful day.

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Meet The Peer: Sam Mason, Peer Support Specialist Support comes in many forms, but few are as profound and empathetic as the insights shared by someone who has the same lived experience. Sam Mason, a peer support specialist based in South Dakota, joins host Whitney Menarcheck on Meet The Peer to share how finding the […]

Continue reading " Support for the Support System: Empathy, Healing, and Lived Experience"
battle within mental health substance use disorder addiction support for veterans

Navigating the Battlefield Within: Understanding the Intersection of Substance Use and Mental Health Among Veterans

Mental Health and Substance Use Battles for Veterans

Veteran mental health substance use disorder addiction support 3

For many veterans, the battlefield they face is within themselves—a complex terrain where mental health challenges and substance use disorders intertwine, creating a formidable adversary to their well-being. Understanding the prevalence of these issues among veterans is crucial for providing effective support and care for those who have served their country.

20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression

The statistics paint a devastating picture. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), around 20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression.

Moreover, the prevalence of substance use disorders among veterans is significantly higher than in the general population, with alcohol and prescription drug use being particularly common.

Combat exposure, multiple deployments, and the stress of military life contribute to the development of mental health disorders among veterans. PTSD, in particular, can manifest through intrusive memories, hyperarousal, and avoidance behaviors, making it challenging for individuals to reintegrate into civilian life. To cope with these symptoms, many turn to substances such as alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs as a means of self-medication.

While statistics specifically focused on non-combat veterans might be less prevalent compared to those for combat veterans, research suggests that mental health issues and substance use disorders are still prevalent among this group.

Factors such as the stress of military service, deployment-related experiences, transitions to civilian life, and exposure to traumatic events can all contribute to mental health challenges and substance use disorders among veterans, regardless of whether they saw combat.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), approximately 11-20% of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) veterans (which include both combat and non-combat veterans) experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a given year. Additionally, substance use disorders are common among veterans, with rates varying depending on the substance and other factors.

approximately 11-20% of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) veterans (which include both combat and non-combat veterans) experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a given year.

While specific data on non-combat veterans may be somewhat limited, it’s clear that mental health and substance use disorders are significant issues that can affect veterans regardless of their combat status.

The relationship between substance use and mental health among veterans is complex and multifaceted. Substance use can exacerbate the symptoms of underlying mental health disorders, leading to a vicious cycle of self-destructive behavior. Conversely, individuals with substance use disorders are more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Access to adequate care and support for veterans struggling with these challenges is critical. Unfortunately, many barriers exist that prevent individuals from seeking or receiving the help they need. Stigma surrounding mental health and substance use disorders within the military culture can deter service members from acknowledging their struggles and reaching out for assistance. Additionally, limited resources and long wait times within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) can hinder access to timely and appropriate treatment.

Addressing the complex needs of veterans requires a holistic approach that integrates mental health services with substance use disorder treatment. Early intervention and comprehensive assessment are essential for identifying and addressing co-occurring disorders effectively. Evidence-based therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) have shown promise in treating both PTSD and substance use disorders concurrently.

Moreover, peer support programs and community-based initiatives play a vital role in providing veterans with a sense of belonging and understanding. Connecting with fellow service members who have walked a similar path can foster a supportive environment where individuals feel comfortable discussing their experiences and seeking guidance without fear of judgment.

Beyond clinical interventions, addressing the social determinants of health is crucial in supporting veterans’ well-being. Stable housing, employment opportunities, and access to education and vocational training can significantly impact veterans’ quality of life and reduce the risk of substance use and mental health problems.

As a society, we have a moral obligation to honor the sacrifices made by our veterans by ensuring they receive the care and support they deserve. By recognizing the complex interplay between substance use and mental health among veterans and implementing comprehensive, evidence-based interventions, we can help them navigate the battlefield within and embark on a path toward healing and recovery.

Peer Specialists, Veterans – They Understand

Reduce The Stigma - Meet the Peer. Matthew Thompson's Story. Triumph Through Struggle: A Marine's Journey to Support and Healing

Read the article about Matthew 

Triumph Through Struggle: A Marine’s Journey to Support and Healing

Watch Matthew’s full interview

Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer: Matthew Thompson

Schedule a peer support session with Matthew

Overcoming Addiction and Finding Purpose: A Story of Hope and Recovery

Read the article about Ryan

Rising Strong: Addiction, Mental Health and Finding Purpose

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Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer: Ryan Spillane

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Mental Health and Substance Use Battles for Veterans For many veterans, the battlefield they face is within themselves—a complex terrain where mental health challenges and substance use disorders intertwine, creating a formidable adversary to their well-being. Understanding the prevalence of these issues among veterans is crucial for providing effective support and care for those who […]

Continue reading "Navigating the Battlefield Within: Understanding the Intersection of Substance Use and Mental Health Among Veterans"
Reduce The Stigma - Meet the Peer. Matthew Thompson's Story. Triumph Through Struggle: A Marine's Journey to Support and Healing

Triumph Through Struggle: A Marine’s Journey to Support and Healing

Reduce The Stigma - Meet The Peer: Matthew Thompson

Sharing his story of triumph through struggle to support and healing, Matthew Thompson, a certified peer support specialist and community health worker from South Dakota, sits down with host Whitney Menarcheck on this episode of Meet The Peer to share his remarkable journey of overcoming trauma, addiction, and mental health challenges to become a beacon of hope and support for others.

Matthew’s story begins with a 28-year career as a Marine enlisted officer, including multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite his outward appearance of strength, Matthew spent years denying and suppressing the pain and trauma he experienced during his service. It wasn’t until a mental health breakdown and subsequent struggles with addiction and suicidal ideation that he confronted the truth of his own suffering.

Reflecting on his journey, Matthew compares his past behavior of denying and burying his emotions to smoking cigarettes—each instance of avoidance adding toxins to his mental and emotional well-being until he reached a breaking point. His path to recovery was fraught with challenges, including surgery, opioid dependence, and confronting deep-seated trauma. However, through therapy, counseling, and sheer determination, Matthew found the strength to turn his pain into purpose.

Now, as a peer support specialist, Matthew dedicates his life to helping others navigate their own struggles with addiction, mental health, and trauma. He emphasizes the importance of authenticity, vulnerability, and non-judgmental support in his approach to peer support. For Matthew, being able to relate to others’ experiences from a place of shared understanding is paramount in fostering trust and connection.

Throughout the interview, Matthew challenges the stigma surrounding addiction, mental illness, and recovery, emphasizing that everyone has struggles and deserves compassion and support. He acknowledges the role of personal growth and introspection in overcoming judgmental attitudes and fostering empathy towards others.

In closing, Matthew offers a message of hope and solidarity to anyone who may be struggling, reminding them that they are valued and deserving of care and support. He encourages reaching out for help and reminds listeners that they are not alone in their journey towards healing and recovery.

Matthew Thompson’s story serves as a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the transformative power of peer support. Through his own journey of struggle and triumph, Matthew has become a guiding light for others, offering compassion, understanding, and hope to those in need.

Note: The full interview may be triggering for some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

Learn more about Matthew:

Book an appointment to receive peer support services from Matthew:

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Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer: Matthew Thompson Sharing his story of triumph through struggle to support and healing, Matthew Thompson, a certified peer support specialist and community health worker from South Dakota, sits down with host Whitney Menarcheck on this episode of Meet The Peer to share his remarkable journey of overcoming trauma, addiction, and mental […]

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