Mental Health Get it Together Shane Mezhir

When he went to college, Shane Mezhir started his struggles with addiction. Today, clean and sober, he's a peer coach with Face It Together, a Denver-based nonprofit that helps people struggling with addiction, as well as their loved ones, navigate the road to recovery. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Shane Mezhir never drank or used drugs until he went off to college — "and then it kind of got out of control."

He found himself snared in the web of addiction. He entered the military for a while; he thought it could help him, thought it could give him the discipline to fight his addiction. But it didn't.

He didn’t have a drug of choice. "Any and all, it didn't really matter."

Mezhir struggled, he says, "on and off for a very long time, until I finally got to the point where I couldn't do it anymore." Resolving to shed his addictions, he followed different paths in his recovery: rehab, 12-step programs and more.

"I've had a lot of friends and family die from this disease," he says, "so I learned very quickly that there's not one way to do this."

Today, clean and sober, he's a peer coach with Face It Together, a Denver-based nonprofit that helps people struggling with addiction, as well as their loved ones, navigate the road to recovery.

Not knowing where to start on that road poses a barrier to care. "A lot of people, when they come to us they are very lost and very confused,” Mezhir says. “It can be a very isolating thing. We walk along with them to let them know they're not alone."

Jim Johnson, owner of GE Johnson Construction Co. in Colorado Springs, knows those feelings; when he was seeking help for a loved one grappling with addiction, he felt "absolutely helpless."

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"I did not know who to talk to, what to do." So that his employees don't have to go through the same thing without help, his company became the first in Colorado to sign up for Face It Together's services.

"Any of our employees or our families who have concerns about a loved one can pick up the phone and get counseling and navigation services," Johnson says. "It’s very overwhelming when you have a family member going through that. … A lot of people are afraid to talk about it. They're afraid of getting judged: ‘What is someone going to think about my son or my husband?’"

Face It Together's peer coaches, through in-person, phone and video contacts, provide emotional support and strategies for change and guide that person to treatment options and other resources. "If someone needs help with housing or transportation or nutrition or financial information, we can provide a referral to those resources," says Jane Ingalls, president of Face It Together.

Only about 10 percent of people in the U.S. with drug and alcohol addictions receive treatment in any given year, Ingalls says. "Our hope is to reach those people who otherwise would not receive help."

While the coaches are not mental health professionals, they are aware of the need to look for signs of an underlying mental illness, Ingalls says. A 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly 8 million adults in the U.S. had a mental disorder and substance use disorder.

"There's so much self-medication that goes on, you can't figure out which came first," Johnson says.

Addiction takes a toll on the workplace in terms of absenteeism, turnover, productivity and more; 500 million workdays are lost annually to alcoholism, a Department of Labor report says. Construction workers are among those reporting the highest rate of illicit drug use.

Johnson recognizes the workplace dangers posed by addiction, directly and indirectly. "The last thing I need is a crane operator worried about where his 18-year-old daughter is. Am I worried about our safety record? Yes, but I'm more worried about our employees' well-being."

Johnson is a business leader with "head and heart," Ingalls says. "He recognizes the bottom-line impact, but more importantly, he cares deeply about his colleagues and the community at large, and recognized addiction is something that requires attention."

Johnson wants more business leaders to come to that recognition and believes that private industry can act quicker than government. “Industry’s got to step up and say this is a problem and here is how we are addressing it.”

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