For Ben Brafman, Becoming A Leader In Mental Health And Addiction Meant Overcoming His Own Obstacles

It was supposed to be a normal day for one of Ben Brafman’s clients. But a simple trip to a meeting ended with the client in jail. The client, who was battling a mental illness, began acting out, which prompted a bystander to call the police. Brafman assured the officers that he just needed a few minutes to calm his client down and they would be on their way. 

“They ended up arresting him for being loud and boisterous,” Brafman remembers. “As soon as they tried to handcuff him, he got aggressive, agitated.”

Brafman, 47, founder and CEO of Guardian Behavioral Health Foundation, says this incident and others aren’t uncommon in the arena of mental illness and addiction.

“We have a tendency to minimize things in society and not really put a lot of stock in it. We’re asking for trouble,” the Parkland resident says. “We need to crack some stereotypes and stigmas.”

With decades of experience in mental health and addiction, Brafman is considered a leader in the field. It began in his hometown of Monticello, New York, where he was raised as the youngest of six. He was determined to escape small-town life, but he would have to endure life’s hurdles first.

“I had my own problems growing up, somewhat of a juvenile delinquent, some of my own drug problems,” he says. “I was told then, ‘You’re wasting your talent.’

I took that to heart. It took me a while to embrace that, but I did take that to heart.”

Brafman believes it was these words delivered at the right time by the right people, including his mother, that made a difference. He went on to study at Syracuse University and then earned his master’s degree in counseling at Barry University.

As a student teacher, he encountered those suffering from the fallout of child abuse, drug addiction and mental health. It was then he knew his calling in life was to help others. He opened Destination Hope, a drug rehabilitation facility, as an all-male facility in 2007. Three years later, the women’s program was introduced. Patients were also separated into age groups—a tactic that has led to success for patient recovery—which was groundbreaking for the field at the time.

During his decades of experience, Brafman says he has seen people without credentials or experience claim to be professionals, hindering the recovery process for patients. To help combat this, he opened The Academy for Addiction Professionals in 2008. There, specialists in the field can earn certifications and learn case management, diagnosis, clinical evaluation, ethics and how to write a treatment plan. 

“There are some people with no credentials, no education, out of their league diagnosing their client or helping an addict recover. … It’s part of the problem that exists in the treatment industry,” Brafman says.

Next, he founded the Guardian Behavioral Health Foundation, which hones in on the needs of the mentally ill by raising money and awareness. This year, the foundation hosted the second annual Mental Health Symposium, where experts, law enforcement, social workers and others came together to learn more about mental health. Attendance was up 30 percent, and attendees helped raise $20,000 for the foundation.

He opened the Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center in 2012, housing 22 beds for mental health patients. 

“They don’t have a voice,” Brafman says. “They are treated very poorly, they’re treated like criminals, they’re treated like they’re less than human, and I just wanted to create an environment where they weren’t judged.”

At press time, Brafman also had plans to open a wellness center during this month, where people can go for holistic “stress reduction” in the form of yoga, tai chi, massage therapy, acupuncture and biofeedback. He says you never know what will work best with a patient, and at the center, they can find out.

“We need to educate the public about [mental health], we need to bring this to the forefront,” he says. “I wanted to help people, I wanted people to feel some normalcy, feel like they belong to something. We’re seeing some good things.”

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