WASHINGTON — Tuesday night’s presidential debate was dominated by chaos and crosstalk, especially as President Trump interrupted Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and moderator Chris Wallace struggled to maintain control.
But one moment of empathy broke through the muddle for some people watching: a spotlight Biden put on his son Hunter’s struggle with addiction.
“My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him,” Biden said.
The moment came after Biden chastised Trump over disparaging comments the commander in chief had reportedly made toward the U.S. military. Biden brought up his late son Beau, a veteran who died of brain cancer in 2015. But before the former vice president could finish, Trump attacked Biden’s other son, Hunter, who was discharged from the Navy after testing positive for cocaine in 2013.
“I don’t know Beau,” Trump said. “I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out ― dishonorably discharged.” (Hunter Biden was not dishonorably discharged.)
Trump continued on to allege that Hunter was able to secure a position on the board of directors of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma, and also able to secure a loan from the Bank of China for the investment firm Devon Archer, only because of his father’s political connections, a topic the president brings up frequently on the campaign trail. Biden ignored the charges and instead addressed the camera, speaking candidly about Hunter’s struggle with addiction.
Biden’s frankness about his son is atypical, and he has tended to get touchy when asked about the topic on the campaign trail.
Yet advocates and experts agree that his candor might help draw welcome attention to the 20 million Americans who suffer from substance abuse disorder.
“Vice President Biden’s response of solidarity with his son showed that families can stick together and make it through a loved one’s addiction or mental health concerns. It showed that families don’t have to hide from addiction,” said Fred Muench, a clinical psychologist and president of the Partnership to End Addiction, a national nonprofit.
Muench continued: “It showed that families can heal if they are supported. All too often politicians hide or deflect their personal or family histories of addiction. Biden was unapologetic in his support for his son as well as the pride he takes in how hard Hunter worked to overcome addiction. This is extremely empowering to those who are struggling and those in recovery. It shatters the stigma.
“When you are struggling alone with addiction or sitting in fear because a loved one is struggling, hearing those words offers some hope.”
Coping with mental illness and substance addiction is widespread, and often invisible. One in five Americans deal with mental health issues in any given year, and, according to data from the American Addiction Centers, the two struggles often co-occur. In 2017, one out of eight adults reportedly struggled with alcohol and drug use disorders simultaneously.
Trump has been open in the past about his own brother Fred Trump Jr.’s struggle with alcoholism. His brother died in 1981 after a long battle with substance abuse, a death that the president once said was the “toughest situation I’ve had” and “affected everything that has come after it.”
Daniel H. Gillison Jr., CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told Yahoo News that since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, his group’s helpline has seen a 65 percent increase in calls and emails from people looking for help. (He stressed that NAMI is a nonprofit and unable to weigh in on candidates.)
“While NAMI cannot comment on specific candidates, we know that discussing substance use and mental health conditions openly on such a national stage helps to get people talking about these issues and ultimately helps people feel more empowered to get the help they need,” Gillison wrote. “As a result of this collective crisis, more people are discussing their mental health challenges and vulnerabilities openly which helps normalize these conversations and destigmatizes mental health concerns.”
Paul Nestadt, the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Anxiety Disorders Clinic, thinks Biden’s remarks might lighten the stigma those vulnerable Americans face at every turn.
“For the millions of Americans struggling with substance dependence, it will be refreshing to hear Biden openly praise his son for his work to overcome addiction,” Nestadt said. “Stigma has been one of the major barriers to treatment in this country, but frank and honest conversations about drug use and recovery, especially coming from high-profile families, remains a powerful way to destigmatize drug dependence.”
He continued: “That’s a lot of families deciding how to deal with a loved one in crisis. Biden chose to applaud his son’s successes, forgive his missteps and speak directly and honestly about the battle, all while presenting an example of victory. Hopefully this will inspire similar approaches in families across the country.”
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