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Ben’s Benefit urges action for addiction care

Now Olivero work to help other families going through similar situations. — Submitted photos

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter ST. JOHN’S — Tina Olivero is turning her family’s tragedy into something meaningful to help the thousands of families who struggle with similar circumstances. After a seven-year battle with his mental health and substance abuse, Ben, Olivero’s son, passed away. “Ben was a beautiful, wise soul. He was six foot six. We called him Gentle Giant, and he was very old soul with a purpose far beyond what I had ever envisioned for his life, and while Ben’s death has been devastating, it’s become a huge catalyst for change,” said Olivero. “Speaking to the hearts of many people across the province with mental health and addictions, it’s almost like we popped a bubble and made the conversation of mental health and addictions one that is truthful and everybody speaks about with ease. So it was an important time. It is a time where hopefully we don’t need to have anonymity for people with mental health and addiction, that it can be mainstream just like any other illness, and that we don’t have to cover things up.” Removing the stigma attached to mental health struggles is one of the main purposes of the movement. “That judgment and all of that comes with it, it’s simply a lack of understanding. What’s underneath stigma is fear, and what’s underneath fear is a lack of understanding, and so we’re taking the fear out of it, and we’re taking the lack of understanding and we’re educating and we’re telling our stories, and these truthful stories are changing and transforming the environment that we live in,” said Olivero. It was through this journey that she realized she wasn’t alone in her grief. “At first I thought I was the only person going through this. And then when Ben died, I realized that there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of parents going through the same thing, because as soon as I spoke up, I created a group called Ben’s Law and the Human Right to Live Addiction Free, and it was an avalanche of now 4,800 people,” said Olivero. “Every day I get two or three direct messages on Facebook from parents going through the exact same thing, asking for help, and so the way that I’ve survived this is helping other parents going through the exact same thing, trying to be that person that I didn’t have, and that Ben didn’t have, trying to make change for the loopholes in the system and trying to be there for other parents who are going through this tragedy. Because I don’t think until you live through it, you have no idea what it’s like to watch your child slowly die in front of your eyes and not be able to do anything about it. It was frustrating, infuriating, saddening, stressful, took a toll on my body. It was unbelievable. The story of what parents have to go through has still to be told.” Ben’s struggles lasted for almost a decade. “We have mental health issues in our family, bipolar. So the moment that he smoked weed, it unlocked almost like a bipolar (effect) in Ben’s brain. And he had no cause and effect, and he had no ability to see that he was even sick, which is called anosognosia, and that’s prevalent in 40 per cent of people with bipolar and 80 per cent of people with schizophrenia. It’s a big reason why people are homeless. They don’t realize they’re sick. They have an illness that is so severe that they don’t have cause and effect, and why would they seek support? It’s just infuriating for us to tell them to go to recovery because they don’t have that frame of reference,” said Olivero. “There’s so many people going through the same thing, and out of that, we built a program on Sundays, every Sunday, for parents and families with addicted loved ones, and we’ve been meeting every Sunday at the Lantern in St. John’s at 3:00 p.m., and that’s a place where we grieve, talk, support each other, find solutions. We rallied together at Confederation Building and we’ve gone to the house to submit petitions to change laws, so that parents can be in the circle of care of their loved ones.” Petitioning for such change is one small way in which this movement aims to help fix a broken system. “There’s a lot (of issues). Ben didn’t have to die. Ben died because, number one, people think addiction is a choice as opposed to a brain illness, and therefore the whole system is set up that way. ‘Well, it’s your choice to be able to do this or do that’, but we haven’t come to an understanding of anosognosia. We don’t test for it. If someone had dementia, we wouldn’t put them out on the street. We wouldn’t put them in jails. But we do that with people with addiction when in fact anosognosia is prevalent in addiction and also dementia,” said Olivero. “So we have misdiagnosis or no diagnosis when we should have diagnosis, early intervention and from there we should have a protocol of care. That is a society where we celebrate the journey of recovery and so that’s what we’re having tonight is a recovery revolution.” The benefit, ‘Ben’s Benefit’ took place on Tuesday evening, Nov. 21, at 8:00 p.m., at Gower Street United Church in St. John’s, and served as a call to action, urging society to recognize addiction as a public health crisis that demands attention, empathy, and a collaborative effort for lasting change. aiming to de-stigmatize addiction and provide an avenue for healing. The event was described as not just a musical celebration, but a rallying cry for systemic change, and the evening showcased the resilience of the Newfoundland spirit through the healing power of music, while highlighting the importance of community support in the face of addiction. “We have hundreds of people coming to the Garrison Church who also are advocates for mental health and addictions change and awareness and wanting to de-stigmatize the whole process, because one in six people in Newfoundland and Labrador are affected by mental health and addictions right now, and will know some form of mental health or addiction issue in their lives,” said Olivero on the afternoon prior to the event. “That’s a staggering statistic. So when you think about that, our society right now is non-inclusive, and we shun people with addiction instead of building a society that includes them. So we need to re-architect our way of thinking and our whole societal system. So my dream is to build, with the profits of tonight, with our donations, is to be able to build sober living homes, sober living communities, sober living cafés, art and music that supports sobriety and recovery, and we just want people to be free, drug-free and make it cool.” Olivero’s non-profit organization, Guardians of Recovery, aims to stand tall as a beacon of hope regarding recovery and rehabilitation. In a release issued on Tuesday, Nov. 21, the organization was discussed in more detail. “Committed to making a positive impact on individuals grappling with addiction, the organization operates under the mission of providing comprehensive assistance to those on the journey to recovery and their families. The Guardians of Recovery all-volunteer team recognizes the multifaceted nature of addiction and aims to address the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of the recovery process. “At the heart of their efforts is a dedication to fostering a sense of community and understanding. The organization believes that a supportive network plays a pivotal role in an individual’s recovery journey, and as such, they strive to create a nurturing environment where individuals can connect, share experiences, and find solace. The Guardians of Recovery website, http://www.guardiansofrecovery.foundation, serves as a central hub for resources, information, and a platform for building this supportive community. “One of the key pillars of the Guardians of Recovery initiative is education. The organization is committed to raising awareness about addiction, debunking myths, and providing lived experience-based information to empower individuals and their families. Through support programs and online resources, Guardians of Recovery aims to equip people with the knowledge and tools necessary to make informed decisions about their recovery journey. “As a non-profit organization, Guardians of Recovery relies on the generosity of donors, volunteers, and partnerships to fund their programs and outreach efforts. By collaborating with like-minded individuals and organizations, they strive to amplify their impact and reach a broader audience. With a forward-looking approach and a compassionate ethos, Guardians of Recovery stands as a beacon of hope, guiding individuals toward a healthier and more fulfilling life beyond addiction.” The message is one that has been well-received. “I think people are desperate for change right now because the thing is we are sitting in the midst of what I call the perfect storm. You take away people’s responsibility, accountability, purpose of work, you add a brain illness, and add to that COVID-19 and then you use drugs to cover it up, there’s no way out of that, so we’ve decimated our society with that cultural discourse and we have to re-architect it into one where, like I said, early intervention, immediate assessment, a protocol of care and treatment that is on demand when needed,” said Olivero. “And not all this, like, waiting for care and that parents are allowed in the circle of care and can support their loved ones when they’re danger to themselves or others and are not capable of… don’t have capacity to ask for help. So the privacy laws, for example, were never meant to harm people. They were meant to help people and we’ve kind of taken it too far because now privacy laws prevent people from helping their loved ones. Whether it’s in the judicial system, medical system, at school, there’s a lot of places where it’s just gone overboard and the result is kids are dying.” Olivero believes that if everyone were to do something small to make a difference, the impact would be significant. “I think that there’s so many people going through this right now. We all have the opportunity to stand up and make change, and if you really want to get through this, what’s in the way is the way. So stand up and rise up and just make one small change every day. Everybody is in front of us every single day. Whether it’s breaking in our care or someone in the family is not well and they need food, or someone has a mindset of homelessness and just needs someone to listen,” said Olivero. “Every single one of us has an opportunity to do one thing, one small thing a day, and if we all did that in this province and our culture was turned around and it was inclusive and our attitude was inclusive, we would fix this thing. I mean, we’ve gone through many times in society when we had to create a revolution, whether it was to overcome Vietnam war, to overcome the AIDS epidemic. These are huge challenges. And what it takes is a shift in our mindset and perspective and building and architecting a society of inclusion for our health and addiction patients and our loved ones.”

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