Hackensack Meridian Health Partners with New York Giants Tight End Darren Waller to Raise Awareness about Addiction, Sobriety and Mental Health
December 13, 2023
Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey’s largest and most comprehensive healthcare network, is proud to announce the appointment of a new Health Ambassador–New York Giants tight end Darren Waller. Waller will draw from his personal story to raise awareness about mental health, addiction and sobriety.
On the outside, professional football player Darren Waller seemed to have a charmed life. The charismatic Georgia native displayed athletic prowess from the time he was in middle school, through his years as a college wide receiver to when he was selected in the 2015 NFL Draft.
But on the inside, Waller struggled with self-consciousness and a feeling that he didn’t belong. Increasingly, he relied on drugs and alcohol as an escape. He kept his “double life,” as he calls it, hidden from public view as he excelled on the field in high school and college, until it began to unravel during his time in the pros with failed drug tests and suspensions.
A nearly fatal fentanyl overdose in his car in 2017 was a life-changing event for Waller, putting him on the path to recovery and sobriety, and a vow to use his story of struggle and staying sober to help others.
“Darren Waller and Hackensack Meridian Health share a mission to help people who are struggling with mental health issues and substance use disorder, both of which are diagnosable medical conditions with treatment and care available. ” said Robert C. Garrett, FACHE, CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health. “Hackensack Meridian Health has significantly integrated behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment into our comprehensive continuum of care over the years. It’s important for people to hear Darren’s story, to know that they are not alone, that there are resources to help them reach the road to recovery.’’
For Waller, Hackensack Meridian Health proved to be the ideal partner for spreading his message of hope and healing.
“I am excited to partner with Hackensack Meridian Health to reduce the stigma attached to addiction and to reach people who currently may be where I was for many years–in a vicious cycle of using alcohol and drugs, and feeling lost and ashamed,” said Darren Waller. “I almost lost everything–my career, even my life. But I came out of that brush with death alive, and with a strong desire to go after a better life. I now enjoy life and am fully present for it, and my driving purpose is to help others find hope, know they are not alone, be open to talking and seeking care so that they can have a full and rewarding life, too.”
Hackensack Meridian Health is the largest and most comprehensive behavioral health and addiction treatment provider in New Jersey and the region. Newsweek Magazine ranked the network’s Blake Recovery Center number one on its 2023 list of Best Addiction Treatment Centers in New Jersey. This is the third time in the last four years that Blake, which treats about 1,400 people each year in its inpatient program, has been No. 1 in the state in the Newsweek ranking.
Blake is part of the Carrier Clinic, which opened in 1910 and is one of the largest mental health and addiction treatment facilities in the region. Blake Recovery Center has been providing inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment for over 40 years.
“Hackensack Meridian Health has the experts who help people day in and day out,” Waller said, “and the care they have been providing for more than 100 years at Carrier is making a difference every day in the mental health and addiction space. We genuinely have a shared passion to change lives. I'm excited to partner with Hackensack Meridian Health to give hope and guidance to anyone who's in need of help.”
Click here for a sampling of the content Darren Waller will be creating for Hackensack Meridian Health as part of this partnership.
The partnership comes at a time when New Jersey is grappling with an increase in alcohol-related hospitalizations and drug overdose deaths. According to New Jersey Hospital Discharge data, the proportion of total hospitalizations with either a primary or secondary diagnosis for alcoholic liver disease increased by approximately 23 percent from 2019 to 2021.
Drug overdose death rates have increased in New Jersey from 11.3 per 100,000 in 2011 to 32.4 per 100,000 in 2021. That was a higher jump than what the nation on average saw in the same time period, when drug overdose death rates increased from 13.2 to 32.4 per 100,000 in the U.S.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2021 there were 2,672 opioid overdose deaths in New Jersey, which accounted for 87% of all drug overdose deaths in the state. Across the U.S., opioid overdose deaths accounted for 75% of all drug overdose deaths in the country in 2021.
From 2011 to 2021, the age-adjusted death rate due to opioid overdose increased from 5.1 per 100,000 to 28.6 per 100,000 in New Jersey. Over the same period, the age-adjusted death rate increased from 7.3 per 100,000 to 24.7 per 100,000 in the U.S.
"At Carrier we look forward to having Darren Waller lend his voice, personal story and compassion to what has always been a priority for us--to combat the stigma around substance use disorder and discussions about mental health," said Trish Toole, Carrier's President and Chief Hospital Executive. "Darren will reinforce the message that substance use disorder is a disease, not a character flaw, and that better days are ahead with the help of treatment and a support system."
“It’s an incredible opportunity to partner with Darren Waller,” said Don Parker, President of Behavioral Health Transformation Services for Hackensack Meridian Health. “Darren is brave and candid about the challenges he faced with addiction. He’s also a great example of how persistence can lead to recovery. We are anxious for his assistance in sending a message of hope to all of those who continue to need care for their addictions.”
The partnership with Waller will include in-person events and multimedia content and an advertising campaign to raise awareness about addiction recovery and behavioral health services. Waller, who credits such things as healthy eating, yoga, hiking, and mindfulness with keeping him sober, will also address general health and promote wellness as part of the partnership.