Mental Health and Substance Abuse

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By: An Anonymous ASAC Prevention Specialist

I know this subject personally all too well.  My son is in treatment right now for a substance use disorder.  Since he was diagnosed with bi-polar depression 6 years ago around his 20th birthday, he has been in and out of treatment facilities several times to treat both disorders.  Around age 22, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

Our family is like a lot of other families, busy with work and lots of the kids’ activities. We are involved in our church and in our community.  My son is very likable, but we were having what seemed within the realm of normal teenage parenting issues when he began to question our authority on simple things like what time to be home at night.  His first incident, which turned violent, occurred when we took away his car keys for not following the rules.   During the fall and spring of his senior year in high school, he had two separate episodes at home. After the first incident he agreed to let us take him to the ER and he was released with a recommendation to get counseling.  A week later he was voted Homecoming king of his high school and we were walking out with him on the football field for parents’ night. He went to counseling a few times and then refused.   It was a bittersweet and confusing time.

During the episode in the spring we had to call an ambulance.  During this episode, he was out of control, hurting himself and yelling suicidal threats. He was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with depression and anxiety. They sent him home with anti-depressants and soon he refused to take those. We had known he had used marijuana at least once the previous year. However, during both hospital visits he was tested for drugs and at those specific times he had no drugs in his system.

Our son had always been on the honor roll in high school; however, after these episodes we were concerned about how he would do in college.  During his first year he made the Dean’s list and seemed to be doing quite well, so we relaxed a bit.  However, we later found out he had been abusing a lot of marijuana his freshmen year and continued to abuse it when he moved off campus his sophomore year.

Sadly during his second semester his sophomore year things fell apart. He called us for help and was very concerned that he was manic, suspecting he had Bi-polar disorder. We got him into the hospital and they confirmed that diagnosis. The doctor told him that smoking marijuana would make it worse and he tried to listen to that.  He struggled to get through that semester.   He continued to struggle through the following summer and had a hard time working at a job he worked many hours at the previous summer. He was trying to get on the right medicine in order to feel well enough to return to college in the fall.

After thinking he finally found a medicine that was working, he returned for his junior year.  However, he quickly spiraled down again so we withdrew him from classes and moved him home.  Once at home, he had a hard time having energy to do anything, but he continued to take his medicine and tried to help my husband around the farm until spring. During this time, he started using cough medicine pills for the dextromethorphan to get high.  We were unaware of this use until one day we discovered he had overdosed and once again rushed him to the hospital.

That overdose was five years ago.  Since then he has been in and out of facilities and his own apartments.  His substance use disorder progressed from using marijuana to using both marijuana and meth, going off his medicine and crashing, getting sober in treatment, and relapsing over and over.  He is finally making progress on both disorders, but not without a lot of hard lessons learned.  The struggle is not over and will not be over for the rest of his life, but hopefully things will get better.

I share this with you because so many people don’t talk about it.  When I started working in substance use prevention, I was primarily working on a grant to reduce underage drinking.  My son was only 13 then.  No one in our family had ever used illegal drugs, but some had struggled with alcohol.  I talked a lot about alcohol to my kids.  There is a history of some mental illness in my family as well, but I didn’t know the connection between substance use, especially Marijuana, and major mental illness yet.

One resource that helped me considerably was Al-Anon.  There are several groups in Linn County. The principles of helping, without enabling, and for letting loved ones be responsible for taking care of themselves, are good for families and loved ones of people with drug use disorders and mental health disorders.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is another resource and has groups in Linn and Johnson County.  Also, please go to to find help for yourself or a loved one with a suspected substance use disorder. It took me a while to grieve over the fact that these chronic illnesses have greatly altered the course I had hoped for my son when he was younger.  I still have a lot of hope that he can manage these illnesses and use what he has gone through to help others.

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