First Lady of North Dakota Is On A Mission To Buck Stigma Of Addiction

By Victoria Kim 02/16/17

First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum has been in recovery for 15 years and has experienced addiction stigma firsthand. 

First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum
First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum Photo via YouTube

North Dakotans who are affected by drug abuse have a powerful ally in the state capital—First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, the wife of newly-elected Governor Doug Burgum.

In a recent interview with the Bismarck Tribune, Helgaas Burgum spoke about raising awareness and reducing the stigma of substance abuse, and shared her personal experience as a person in recovery.

“I’m very passionate about addiction because it affects me personally,” said the first lady. “I have actually been in recovery for 15 years now.” She’s on a mission to end the stigma and shame surrounding substance abuse that she herself had to overcome before she was able to start her recovery.

Not getting into the gritty details of her experience, Helgaas Burgum said, simply, “It was fun until it wasn’t fun ... It was just part of my DNA that was going to show up at some point.” 

She didn’t reach a low point or “rock bottom” with alcohol—in fact, she hid her drinking so well that when she sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the people that knew her were shocked, including her family.

She was in the inpatient program for 10 days, but said it took a few years and a “few more slips and bumps” before she was able to fully commit to long-term sobriety. 

The first lady said that quitting alcohol allowed her to improve her self-esteem and accomplish more in her career—she has her MBA and worked in human resources and marketing for over 25 years. “I know that I am blessed to be where I am in my life because I am sober,” she told the Tribune. “I really believe I have a higher power who directed me down this path where I am now.” 

North Dakota’s problem with heroin and prescription pain medication isn’t as pronounced as it is in other states. Still, drug overdoses tripled from 2013 to 2015, according to Andrew McLean, medical director for the state Department of Human Services.

It seems Helgaas Burgum’s personal experience has informed her husband, Governor Doug Burgum’s views of addiction and drug abuse. “We treat addiction like a crime,” he said, according to the Tribune. “We can’t solve the problem by building bigger and more prisons.”

For a fraction of the annual cost to incarcerate one individual—$40,000—the governor said “we could be rehabilitating those individuals.”

Burgum emphasized the importance of the community working together. The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks is one example of this. The school has worked on educating communities and training behavioral health professionals about identifying and treating substance abuse. 

“This is going to take faith-based, nonprofits, private sector, individuals, families, everybody working together,” said the governor.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr