Delivering Excellence in Lifelong Learning

Ryan to the rescue: Incoming Addiction Studies student wants to end stigma


By Kristin Zita

Ryan Gallagher is the sort of person you feel you can talk to about pretty much anything. The fact that he’s a firefighter with the Burlington Fire Department - and is therefore already kind of a hero - is part of it, but it’s mostly because Gallagher is an open book when it comes to talking about difficult experiences that have changed and shaped his life.

In fact, Gallagher is so good at reaching out and empathizing with those around him that he was nominated to be a member of the City of Burlington Peer Support program. Designed to create a safe, non-judgmental and confidential space where staff can engage in a supportive conversation with a peer about life’s challenges, the program is an ideal fit for Gallagher. It’s also what drew him to the Professional Addiction Studies program at McMaster University Continuing Education, where he’s starting part-time courses this fall.

“The peer support training I’ve received through the City of Burlington has been great,” Gallagher states, “but I wanted to take it one step further. The Addiction Studies program will be perfect additional training for my job – but also for my everyday life too.”

That’s because Gallagher’s goal is to be the guy anyone really can come to, whether it’s a family member, friend, coworker, or someone he meets while on a call. “I want to be able to recognize people who are struggling and have a better understanding of what those struggles are like,” he says. “I hope that if people know I have this additional qualification from McMaster, that they’ll be more willing to open up and talk to me about whatever they’re dealing with.”

Gallagher understands the value of talking all too well. After losing his father at the tender age of 16, he struggled with the weight of his grief, and eventually turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. “It was my outlet,” he states. “I wasn’t an alcoholic, but I was using it in an unhealthy way.”

He eventually sought counseling, and now talk therapy has become a lifelong habit that he has made a priority. Annual mental health check-ups and regular therapy sessions are part of his self-care routine, and something he encourages others to consider.

“More people need to understand that it’s okay to talk about and address mental health and addiction problems,” Gallagher asserts. “It’s great that programs like the Professional Addictions Studies exist, because the more people educate themselves, the less stigma there will be attached to these issues.”

“I just want people to feel like they’re normal,” Gallagher says. “I’ve been through it – we’ve all been through something – and being open about your struggles is the best way to beat them.”

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headshot of firefighter Ryan Gallagher, McMaster University Continuing Education Professional Addiction Studies graduate