TAMPA, Fla. — To Gary Mendell, it was a helpless feeling. His son, Brian, died by suicide in the middle of the night in October 2011.
According to Mendell, Brian made the tragic decision after a prolonged fight with a disease he struggled to treat. In his teenage years, he tried drugs and alcohol, which led to addiction.
Mendell remembers the feeling of not knowing where to turn for help.
“Like most families or any family with this disease, at that time, it was really — extremely difficult understanding what level of care your son or daughter needs. Do they need outpatient? Do they need residential? Do they need medications? Do they need mental health services?” he recalled. “There is no one place to go. You call a neighbor. You go to Google. You have no idea.”
After Brian’s death, Mendell asked himself two questions: what could he have done differently as a father? Also, what could he do to spare other families from the same tragedy?
Those unknowns eventually led to the creation of a nonprofit, Shatterproof, and a website, ATLAS, which is now available to all Floridians. During a news conference in Tampa on Thursday, Mendell will join Florida Blue, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, politicians, and others to announce and promote the new website.
“It’s already changing the system,” he said.
Mendell said the free online tool is unique in the way it allows those struggling with addictions to complete a quick, confidential assessment before connecting them with appropriate clinics and other services based on their needs and insurance providers. It allows them to read patient-submitted reviews for those clinics and compare and contrast them.
“It’ll go through just 13 questions to understand the severity of your disease, what you’re addicted to, and is outpatient or residential most appropriate, and what additional services are needed by you,” Mendell explained.
The website grades providers on a list of best practices, which it calls “signs of high-quality care.” Those best practices include quick access to care, access to medications, and access to long-term treatment. The website gives a facility a green check mark for each benchmark it meets.
While providers have influence over the information included on the site, Mendell said there are checks and balances to ensure the information is accurate. For instance, he said Shatterproof uses claims data to verify whether providers meet certain best practices.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close,” he said.
Mendell said ATLAS would only get better as more people use it and submit reviews.
Florida is the 10th state in which it's available. According to Mendell, Florida Blue provided the initial funding to launch ATLAS in Florida, and thanks to a partnership with the State of Florida, funding will eventually be provided by the state.
“It’s already up and running,” he said. “It’s available to everyone in the state.”
Mendell hopes the website will eventually be available to all Americans because he believes it has the ability to save countless lives as overdose deaths continue to wreak havoc on thousands of families.
“I got a call from someone Saturday who said, ‘I heard about you through Treatment ATLAS. I’m on the Treatment ATLAS site. I’m using it. I’m narrowing my search for my brother,’” he said. “Can I prove that it’s going to save — that he’s now going to live for the next 50 years and he would have died? No. But I know that he was highly at risk, and he’s not now. He’s safe in treatment right now in the appropriate outpatient.”
More than a decade after his son’s death, Mendell said he’s still just as focused on saving other families from similar tragedies.
“There’s so many people yet to help, so I don’t look back at what we’ve done,” he said. “I look at what we can do.”