Women’s History Month: Betty Ford and Removing Addiction Stigma

This Women’s History Month, we’d like to highlight Betty Ford, former First Lady and fierce advocate for social policy reform. Ford fought for women’s rights, the arts, health and breast cancer awareness, and many other philanthropic efforts. After her time as First Lady, Ford found a new purpose – fighting addiction and the negative stigma around substance use disorder. 

Forging a Path From Problem to Solution

Ford suffered from a pinched nerve and was prescribed opioid medications to deal with the pain. She also dealt with alcoholism dating back to her time before the White House. Despite her struggles with addiction, Ford left a positive mark as First Lady with her advocacy and philanthropic efforts. It wasn’t until after her tenure as First Lady that her addictions became apparent to her family, to the point of being life-threatening. Her family staged an intervention in 1978, leading her down the path to sobriety. 

Rather than hide behind the stigma around addiction, Ford was transparent with her struggles as she was with her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Drug misuse treatment clinicians and experts lauded her public-facing recovery, as they felt it would open a proactive dialogue around the subject. With the help of the hospital’s addiction treatment program, Ford managed to overcome her addiction to opioids and alcohol. She penned her journey to recovery in her first memoir, The Times of My Life

The Formation of the Betty Ford Center

After beating her addiction in 1982, she opened the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. The center was launched to help others battle and overcome their chemical dependency issues. The non-profit residential treatment center is still open today and offers inpatient, outpatient, and residential day treatment options. There are also preventative and educational programs offered for families and children, reinforcing the community aspect of successful addiction recovery. 

Their website lays out their primary goal of providing patients with “individualized, compassionate, holistic, and expert substance abuse treatment.” Today, the facility’s inpatient programs are gender-informed and personalized to address individual needs. All treatment plans take the following into consideration:

  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Gender identity
  • Family history
  • Substances used (types of drugs)
  • Potential for relapse
  • Medical necessity

Dealing With The Stigma of Addiction

Betty Ford’s work in the public sector helped shine a light on addiction and how it impacts both individuals and their families and loved ones. Unfortunately, negative stigma overshadows addiction and limits the help and resources people need to recover. Ford, a prominent figure, brought opioid addiction and alcoholism out into the light. She reinforced this through her memoir and continued advocacy through her treatment programs at the Betty Ford Center.

Overdose Lifeline’s Work on Removing the Stigma

Overdose Lifeline is also a strong champion of removing the stigma around substance use disorders. Our goal is for addiction to be provided the same care and attention that is provided to other chronic diseases. Unfortunately, the stigma around addiction perpetuates false stereotypes, spreads misinformation, and makes it harder for people to get the care they need. It also leads to denial with family members of people dealing with substance use disorders, causing further harm and limiting resources. 

“Changing the language and removing the stigma provides people hope that someone cares enough to help them walk this journey, because it’s a difficult, scary journey and the resource available for medical care and understanding addiction are just not the same as there are for other chronic diseases,” says Justin Phillips, Founder and Executive Director, Overdoes Lifeline, Inc.

Phillips notes stigma as an integral part of Overdose Lifeline’s mission. By acknowledging the stigma, people can then educate themselves and choose words that do not further stigmatize substance use disorders. For example, using “people-first” language, avoiding negative terms like “addict,” “junkie,” or “user,” and calling it what it is – substance use disorder – go a long way in reshaping the conversation around addiction and recovery.   

Recognizing Betty Ford and Her Emphasis on Community With Recovery

Betty Ford’s legacy lives on through the Betty Ford Center, and she recognized the importance of a strong network of resources in dealing with addiction. In her 1978 statement to the public, she said, “I expect this treatment and fellowship to be a solution for my problems. I embrace it, not only for me, but all the many others who are here to participate.”

We here at Overdose Lifeline celebrate Betty Ford and her longstanding efforts in helping others on their journey. Removing the stigma around addiction is an ongoing battle and one that takes active work. If you are unsure if you have a stigma toward this subject, please take our quizzes to learn more

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