North Dakota's first lady takes aim at stigma of addiction

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First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum speaks about the third annual Recovery Reinvented Friday, Oct. 25. (Sydney Mook/Grand Forks Herald)

North Dakota faces serious challenges in helping residents who are coping with addiction and mental health issues, but the greatest need is eliminating the stigma that keeps them from getting help, first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum said.

So, for the first time, she and other organizers of next month’s Recovery Reinvented conference are inviting people to make short, selfie videos with personal messages about addiction or mental health.

The wife of Gov. Doug Burgum met with the Herald on Friday, Oct. 25, to spread awareness about the third annual Recovery Reinvented conference slated for Nov. 12 in Bismarck. She and the governor are masters of ceremonies for the event, which is expected to draw more than 900 people, she said.

Helgaas Burgum, who was in Grand Forks to speak to those gathered for the Veterans Addiction and Mental Health Conference, said she is excited about the Recovery Reinvented conference, which will focus on how to create a more responsive and supportive corporate culture for people grappling with addiction and mental health problems.


“Twenty-three million Americans are dealing with the disease of addiction, and 70% of them are working full time," she said.

A recent survey to measure the nature and extent of stigma revealed that 63% of North Dakotans believe that addiction is a disease.

“So one in three believe it’s a choice," said Helgaas Burgum, noting those are the minds she would like to reach.

She expressed encouragement from recent state legislative action which supports the expansion of a network of peer support specialists who have experienced similar situations and can help others in their recovery as well as regain driver's licenses and re-enter the workforce.

Some who have dealt with the disease of addiction or mental health issues “are discriminated against for the rest of their lives,” she said.

At next month’s Recovery Reinvited conference, she is eager for attendees to witness, in the submitted selfie videos, “the faces and voices of people in recovery,” Helgaas Burgum said. "It could be parents who’ve lost a child, or a sister or brother of someone who’s struggling, or the impact on the foster care system.”

The 10- to 20-second videos will be shown throughout the daylong Recovery Reinvented conference, she said.


“Talk will eliminate the stigma,” she said. “Just start talking about it, that will eliminate the elephant in the room.”

To that end, Helgaas Burgum has traveled the state and spoken publicly about her commitment to improving lives and her own struggle to overcome addiction.

“It’s my platform and my passion,” said Helgaas Burgum, noting that Native Americans have seen significant impacts from addiction with few resources for treatment.

“Hardly anyone is not affected by addiction in some way,” she said. “I wish there was more focus on how it affects addiction in tribal nations.”

But she’s also impressed that “so many people are trying to help and trying to be innovative,” said Helgaas Burgum, pointing to innovative projects, such as The Door community recovery organization at New Town, N.D., and a culture for recovery support at Minot State University, aimed at making a difference.

She praised the work being done in Grand Forks to raise awareness and reduce stigma, especially the video created by students with funds from the first lady’s YES (Youth Ending Stigma) Challenge.

The city’s Youth Commission received $1,000 to create a video, which won a YES Challenge award, she said. Seventeen North Dakota schools participated in the challenge.

“Grand Forks is doing so much,” she said. “Good things are happening here.”


Helgaas Burgum and the governor are planning to present the second video by the Grand Forks Youth Commission to the U.S. surgeon general at a meeting next week and share it broadly with other officials.

"We can’t reach our full potential as a state if we can’t reach our full potential as people,” she said.

To supply a personal video for the Recovery Reinvented conference, go to Everyone is welcome to attend the conference, at no charge, but registration is required. For more information, go to

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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