Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, North Dakota's First Lady, told the Grand Forks Youth Commission on Wednesday that, as a teenager, her life was not as wonderful as it appeared.
Growing up in Jamestown, she had "a huge circle of friends, did well in sports, and basically wanted for nothing," she said.
"On the outside, my life looked perfect but, inside, it didn't feel right. I likely had some depression in high school."
Helgaas Burgum shared a personal story of her 20-year struggle with alcohol addiction and thanked commission members for their efforts to end the stigma that prevents their fellow students from talking about mental health and addiction issues and getting the help they need.
The Grand Forks Youth Commission is a group of middle and high school students who, along with adult mentors, work to enhance the lives of youth in the city.
As First Lady, Helgaas Burgum has made it a priority to support and develop initiatives to fight substance use disorders and the social stigma that those caught in addiction often face.
Her primary initiative, "Youth Ending Stigma," or YES, has stimulated young people statewide to create campaigns, using social media, video and other methods, to bring mental health and addiction issues out the shadows and "encourage people to ask for help through peer mentorship," she said.
"Addiction is a disease, not a character flaw."
Substance use prevention is a major concern of the Youth Commission. As a winner of the YES Challenge, the group created a video to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues and addiction. It included photos of students holding posters, with hand-written messages such as "Break the Silence," "Stop the Judgement, Start the Healing" and "It will not define you."
Shortly after her husband, Doug Burgum, was elected governor, Helgaas Burgum visited the Grand Forks Youth Commission in 2017, she said.
"You'll always be special to me because it was here I gave one of my first talks as First Lady. I was nervous; I wasn't sure I had any words that would inspire you. I had hardly told my story to anyone," she said. "The support I felt was pretty great."
She thanked them for their efforts on this issue.
"You will never know the good things you've started," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. "Some of your peers may have already reached out because of your leadership and vision."
After the talk, Deb Swanson, director of the Grand Forks Public Health Department, said, "(Helgaas Burgum) has done more to change the conversation around addiction and mental health than anyone-she's everywhere. It's a message of hope that helps those of us trying to change things to be more effective."