Toni Cornell — armed with a mission to end the stigma associated with addiction — is honoring her late father, rock star Chris Cornell.
On Friday ahead of World Mental Health Day, the 16-year-old and her brother Christopher launched an informative new podcast titled Stop the Stigma: Tackling the Stigma of Addiction Through Education. The series comes as part of their national advocacy campaign addressing the discrimination faced by individuals battling substance abuse. The podcast, which will explore how stigma is hampering efforts to combat addiction, is in partnership with the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation along with the Addiction Policy Forum.
Chris Cornell, who first gained fame as the lead singer of Soundgarden and later as frontman for Audioslave, died by suicide in 2017.
"Stigma has affected me," Toni tells PEOPLE. "I continue to see personal attacks on my family for sharing the truth. The majority of people see addiction as a moral flaw."
"My father suffered from a disease that runs in our family, both his parents were alcoholics," she says. "The most important thing we can do is know what it is and share our story, so that my brother and I can understand why it happened and prevent others from suffering the same way."
"I want listeners to learn about addiction as a disease," Toni tells PEOPLE. "We worry about all our organs it seems, except our brains. We often neglect the fact that our brains are affected by genetic and environmental factors and by substance use or abuse, including short and long-term effects of alcoholism."
She adds: "We need to understand which communities and individuals are genetically predisposed and who is more susceptible. It all comes back to ending the stigma so that we can start treating addiction as a disease. If not, we will continue to lose more people. We need to understand that it is very much a mental health issue."
Dr. Nora Volkow, scientist and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institute of Health, is the first guest to join Toni on the new podcast.
"She was so great to speak with. The way she explained everything really helped me," says Toni. "It was really important to understand that it is scientifically proven that addiction is a disease. It is critical to end the stigma surrounding addiction so that we can catch up to science."
Toni has a message for her peers.
"Educating youth is really important to help end the stigma, and to teach young people that addiction is genetic," she says. "Also, experimenting with drugs before our brains fully develop can really alter our brain chemistry. I don’t think kids my age understand that, so I want to be a voice to help share that."
The Stop the Stigma campaign will offer free training sessions and educational workshops nationwide for policymakers, healthcare professionals, educators, employers, faith leaders, youth and the public. The peer-to-peer educational pilot program is set to visit high schools around the country this fall.
"The most important thing in the world for me is to continue to honor my dad and his legacy," Toni says. "I do that by using my voice both in my singing and songwriting, which I love, and also by sharing important lessons that I am learning and my dad's experience and his very wise words."
"My dad should still be here," she says. "No one should have to go through this pain and loss. We can make a change by stopping the stigma and following the science."
Toni penned an emotional letter to her dad which you can read in full below.
Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my dad. He was everything to me.
So many people were deeply affected by his life and his music. It is no exaggeration to say that he saved lives.
My dad never expected life to be perfect. His childhood was filled with ups and downs. He came from a family where both of his parents suffered with alcohol use disorder and he was often subjected to an abusive environment. At the age of 14, he started experimenting with different drugs, including PCP, which caused a panic disorder. He didn't share that with his parents when it happened and for the next two years he suffered from this alone and without support. He explained to us that up until that moment, he felt he could do anything and that life was great and full of possibilities. Then all that changed.
He learned from his mistakes and shared those lessons with us. He shared how he overcame his own anxiety, but then also shared that alcohol had dragged him back into drugs. He explained how that led him to depression and using other drugs because it took away the fear associated with it. He taught us the importance of understanding addiction.
Addiction education is so very important. Yet it is something that is not taught and not discussed enough.
I want to help change that.
I want to end the stigma of those battling addiction. The belief that it is always depression and anxiety that cause abuse is incorrect. This perception is perpetuated by stigma. My dad described addiction like an allergy, explaining that we too might have this allergy. It helped us to understand that addiction was genetic, and that it didn’t mean there was something wrong with you.
My dad was a realist and he believed in tomorrow. And even though his music was dark at times, it was always full of hope. He taught us that a single moment in time does not define who you are and what you feel, nor does it take away your strength. We all have hard moments, he explained, 'No one is happy all the time,' and that we need to understand how anxiety affects everyone at some point in some way.
He tried to help others as well. Those who felt the stigma of addiction and were not able to understand that depression also comes when you 'double up on [anti-]depressants and your reality at the moment is not what’s really going on for you.'
This is why it is so sad that he lost his life when, in a tragic moment, drugs altered his reality. This tragic moment does not define who my father was nor should this tragedy be distorted to fit other people's stories. Speculation is irresponsible, it robs my father of who he was, and tarnishes the memories of those who truly knew him and loved him. Worse, it perpetuates a dangerous lie that can hurt others.
This much I know: My dad would never have stood for that. My dad’s story is important and as he would say, 'We have to look to the past to navigate our future.' We have to tell the story 'because people forget.' Depression and anxiety are issues that my dad dealt with, but those were not the reasons why he never returned from Detroit.
My family will never know true peace as there is nothing anyone can do to bring him back. But, we will continue to honor him by sharing his message of hope and trying to spare others from suffering the same pain.
Our mission is to see our dad's legacy live on and to continue to positively impact lives. Education is paramount to not only understanding the disease, but also preventing it.
I believe that education needs to start in our communities and homes, but also in our schools. We need doctors and healthcare providers to be educated on addiction. We lose over 200 people a day to overdoses alone.
The science is there, now it’s up to us as a society to catch up in order to save lives and understand this is a disease and not some moral flaw.
My family and I will continue to raise awareness and work towards changing laws and policies. If my dad was treated as an individual with a substance use disorder, he would never have been prescribed the medication he was given. Since my dad’s death, my mother has created a lot of open dialogue with medical experts in the field who sat with us and explained what happens to a person with a substance use disorder who is given a highly addictive drug. He was not prescribed this medication for anxiety, but for a physical injury.
My dad's death was completely preventable. We need to stop the stigma that does not allow us to see that this is a disease and a mental health disorder, not a moral flaw. The former perspective saves lives, the latter ends them.
I miss my dad every second of every day and I know he would not want his death to be in vain. I hope others can learn from our pain and experience and I hope that we can stop the same thing from happening to every other family affected by this disease.
Listen to Stop the Stigma here.
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