As I write this article, the ashes of two of my close family members sit in urns. My nephew Ryan died of an overdose of alcohol three years ago and my grandson Antonio died of an overdose of heroin less than two years later. The silver lining in these two very sad stories is that my nephew Patrick has so far survived a profound meth addiction and is in recovery.

With the loss of these gentle and caring souls I have reflected deeply on their stories and contemplated enough to finally write this article. I asked myself over and over these questions: What did they all have in common that addiction became so profoundly embedded into their psyche? What advice could I give to others who are struggling with this issue that we now face at epidemic proportions in our families? What made the difference for survival?

So here is what I learned:

Empaths: All of these young men were empaths, meaning they were extremely sensitive to the world around them from birth. Being an empath means they easily absorb other people’s feelings, energy and stress. There is an estimate that one in five children are considered highly sensitive, yet there is no diagnosis for being an empath by psychologists, and instead most are piled into the“social anxiety”category. Although there can be benefits to being highly sensitive, like having a heightened intuition and a brilliant mind, it also has its challenges in the young adult years, as they are overstimulated and overwhelmed, and therefore particularly vulnerable to depression, anxiety and addiction. Alcohol and drugs are an easy fix to numb the sensitivity they feel.

Expectations: Many fall victim to families with excessive expectations. When I talk to addicted empaths, the major complaint is they feel like victims of constant criticism by peers and parents. Only when they can truly dismiss the judgement are they able to overcome the sensitivity and learn to love themselves and feel accepted for who they are, and not feel they must shift into a person that society and families want them to be. This was especially the case with my nephew Ryan who was a star quarterback on the football team. I recall his funeral with 600 people in attendance and wondered why he never reached out to even one person who was sitting there? His fear of being judged was greater than his ability to seek help. As human beings we must learn and accept that there are times of light and times of darkness and it is okay. Another pitfall I see are parents overzealously removing obstacles throughout their child’s life, when in reality life is about overcoming adversity not avoiding it. This causes an even greater crevasse to fall into when things do not go well and a wider gap to recovery.

Stigma: There is a misconception that depression is caused by something in your life that goes wrong, but the truth is that sadness is normal. Depression is when everything is going right and you are still sad. Most who are depressed find it is too difficult to talk about because of stigma, but the only way out of it is to talk about it because it is a vast problem. Somewhere in the world, by the time you finish reading this article, twenty people will be dead because of a mental illness or addiction. Unfortunately our society simply puts a band-aid on this gushing wound of depression that so many suffer from. A child should be able to tell a parent that they are going through hell and have a parent say, “Everything is going to be alright,” show acceptance, and get the proper services before it is too late. Being able to accept a weakness and acknowledge a problem is the first step in overcoming the ignorance about it. Asking an empath to “suck it up” is a recipe for disaster. Mental illness and addiction couldn’t care less what your socio-economic level is, in fact often the more affluent you are, the more vulnerable you become. From wealthy investment bankers to a poverty-stricken black teenager, the suffering is endless and knows no demographic boundaries.

I feel that mental health practitioners need to take an in-depth look at early identification of children who are empaths. Six years ago I did not even know what the word meant until someone described me this way and I went to Wikipedia and looked it up. That moment opened Pandora’s box to the characteristics of my personality and the understanding that I too walked in the world with a heightened sensitivity compared to others.

I honestly question many childhood “disorders” and my intuition tells me that many of the labels placed on children are a misguided attempt to diagnose sensitivity. What is even more troubling is thinking that the solution is medicating them into a state of calm to protect them from their natural self.

I believe that if we are able to find out early on that a child is an empath, we would be able to create a kinder and gentler process to help guide them through a chaotic world with their hypersensitivity. Acquiring creative and mindful tools could go a long way in helping them perceive the world in a more constructive way. Teaching them how to be grounded and less susceptible to judgement and blame could save many lives that are now falling victim to a society’s ignorance of their special needs.

Lori Morrison holds a degree in International Studies from the University of Washington, Seattle. Her professional accomplishments are vast, from international high net worth investment banking, CEO of a world-class food and wine distributor, and a commercial real estate developer. Since 2012, she has vigorously studied the application of sacred sciences and alternative and holistic healing methods to heal the mind and body. Morrison has travelled the world studying with indigenous shamans and integrative medicine practitioners using cutting-edge neuroscience and quantum physics to heal illness. She now sits on the board of the Mental Health Coalition of Verde Valley headquartered in Sedona, Arizona, and is Head of the Education and Community Awareness committee ( Morrison currently has a very successful spiritual counselling practice in Sedona, where she inspires people towards personal shifts in consciousness. In addition, she is creator of the Tree of Life Course and Tree of Life sound resonance CD. To find out more, visit Morrison’s Website and connect with her on Twitter.

Lori: The Disintegration of My Ordinary Reality is currently available via Kindle on Amazon, Print and Audible.