DENVER, Colo. — Keith Hayes knows what it's like to struggle with substance abuse.
“I started to experiment with alcohol and other drugs, and my life started to become unmanageable," he said. "Before I knew it, I started showing up in places like jails, hospitals and institutions, and I realized that, you know, I had totally lost the power of choice and control.”
Hayes turned his life around and is now the director of recovery at 5280 High School.
The school serves students who struggle with substance abuse, self-harm, and other destructive behaviors.
Hayes says it’s a safe space that is filled with like-minded people who are all trying to learn how to live a healthy lifestyle. He says there was no school like 5280 when he was a teenager. It wasn’t until he was completely broken down and battered that he decided to get help.
“I was 35 years old," Hayes said. "I was living out on the street. I was selling dope. I was doing dope. I was doing a lot of things to cause a lot of harm to a lot of people. And I was tired. I was tired. And I remember waking up in a park and I woke up that morning and I said, 'I can't do this anymore.'”
With no job and no insurance, he felt his treatment options were limited.
“I talked to my probation officer and she gave me an opportunity to go to the Denver Salvation Army Air," Hayes said. "And in that place, I found connection. I found recovery."
Dr. Nora Volkow directs the national institute of drug abuse at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She and Hayes agree that connection is key for someone to get out of addiction.
“Without those social support systems, it is extremely difficult for almost anyone to be able to achieve recovery,” Dr. Volkow said.
However, to find that connection, the person facing addiction needs to admit they need help.
“We're raised as Black men to not ask for help," Hayes said. "We're raised to not reach out to others and say, 'Hey, I'm struggling.'”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, from 2019 to 2020, overdose deaths among white people increased by 24 percent. The percent increase among Black people was 45 percent.
Liz Owens with the Colorado Department of Human Services Office of Behavioral Health says the office noticed those disparities when viewing data from its anti-stigma campaign called Lift the Label.
“What we saw is that our ads themselves, our digital ads, were reaching 92 percent white people, and that was unacceptable,” Owens said.
The office reached out to researcher Daniel Goldberg with the University of Colorado Anschutz medical campus to better understand stigma and how they could diversify their audience.
“Stigma is upstream, it's a structural phenomenon, and it's driven by the same kinds of things that drive structural inequalities in our society in general," Goldberg said. "So it's a product of structural violence, it's a product of power. And so things like racism and sexism and classism and ableism - all these kinds of things that are driving inequalities in general, they are also driving stigma.”
Owens says they learned they needed to add different voices and faces to the campaign.
“Whether that's as people of color, LGBTQ-plus or both," Owens said. "And could talk about those stories and how their identities impacted their ability to get treatment and their comfort in talking about their problems.”
Hayes was one of the people they chose. He's now been sober for more than four years, and the impact he’s having on adolescents is one that will last a lifetime.
“It's there that you can do the largest impact in the long-term,” Dr. Volkow said.