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ND first lady hopes to reduce stigma of addiction with new conference

North Dakota First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum discusses substance abuse prevention with students on the Grand Forks Youth Commission Monday at the Grand Forks City Hall council chambers. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

BISMARCK—North Dakota's first lady hopes to spark a "grassroots campaign" with the launch of a new conference on addiction next week.

"We thought it would be a great way for us to start down the path of helping to reduce the shame and stigma surrounding addiction," said Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, the wife of Gov. Doug Burgum.

The conference, dubbed Recovery Reinvented, will feature speakers on topics like addiction and recovery, criminal justice reform and sober living. It'll be held Tuesday, Sept. 26, at the Bismarck Event Center and is free to attend, but registration is required.

Helgaas Burgum said more than 700 people are expected to attend the conference, which she hopes will become an annual event. She expects a diverse audience, including people in recovery and those struggling with addiction.

The event is part of Helgaas Burgum's focus on addiction issues as first lady. In an interview with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead earlier this year, she disclosed that she has been in recovery for 15 years for alcohol addiction.

Helgaas Burgum later spoke at the National Recovery Month Luncheon in Washington, D.C., and met with Richard Baum, acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Helgaas Burgum said she's heard from people who sought treatment or spoke up because they've heard other people, "I guess like me," talk about their experiences.

"I think people in recovery traditionally have been worried about what people would think or how it might affect their jobs," she said. "But if people start talking about it like it's a disease, then other people will be encouraged to do the same."

Alcohol is the top substance reported by adults receiving treatment through North Dakota's regional human service centers, but heroin and meth violations have "skyrocketed" in recent years, according to a 2016 report from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office.

Burgum has said he would donate the $51,500 he made as governor in the first half of this year to "new recovery and treatment initiatives" to be announced by his wife. He planned to decline his salary after July 1, the start of a new budget cycle.

But the governor's spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the salary hasn't been used for Recovery Reinvented and instead "will be used for actions in this area, including initiatives that may arise from the RR event."

Kris Bevill, a spokeswoman for the event, said it's being funded primarily through sponsorships, but some of the money is coming from federal grants received by the Department of Human Services that are "specifically for substance abuse and prevention and treatment."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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