A Common Co-Existence: Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorder

mental illness

By Leslie Clark, PRCC Executive Director

Mental illness and substance use disorder often co-exist. It’s not always easy to determine which came first, but both are the result of a combination of genes and environment.

For those of us with a genetic predisposition, stress, adverse childhood experiences and traumatic events are enough to set off a cascade of mental health problems and substance use. And let’s face it, the odds of experiencing painful hardships while growing up are pretty high.

The recovery movement combines personal healing, community connection, and social action to bring about transformed lives.

Recovery community organizations embrace all of these elements to address not only individual healing, but to promote safe and just communities.

Many people have heard of Anna O., Freud’s first patient about whom he wrote extensively in the 1880s as he developed psychoanalysis to treat mental illness. Freud and his colleagues claimed success in treating Anna’s “hysteria” and moved on, but the truth was that Anna O. was left institutionalized where she suffered tremendously.

Anna O.’s real name was Bertha Pappenheim, and she went on to get well and became a revered and well-known social activist in Germany. What “cured” Bertha, who also suffered from addiction to opiates that had been prescribed to her, began when her cousins introduced her to ideas about equal rights for women.

Bertha started working in a soup kitchen and helped at an orphanage, eventually becoming its director. She became an activist, combatting sex trafficking of women and children, and initiating many educational opportunities for women.

Bertha Pappenheim’s story is an example of how service to others and working against oppression is healing in its own right.

Recovery from mental illness and substance use disorder depends on addressing the underlying conditions, including issues of oppression, personal violence, and discrimination.

As recovery communities, we support one another in finding our way to wellness and by working to help others and build better communities.

We are all better for it.

Originally published in Journey Magazine. Reprinted with permission.