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Local News

Addiction in the suburbs series: Co-occurring substance, mental health issues are treatable

Individuals who are diagnosed with a mental illness like depression or anxiety face a higher risk of developing substance abuse problems, but help is available and both conditions are treatable. Co-occurring disorders are becoming more common, especially among women, and are prevalent in the western suburbs.

Matt Sherbine, clinical coordinator of addictions services at Pillars, the largest nonprofit provider of mental health and social services in the west and southwest suburbs, said those with a depressive disorder are three times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem, while those with an anxiety disorder are four times more likely. Alcohol is commonly abused, as are prescription drugs like benzodiazepines or opioids. Drug or alcohol abuse not only can exacerbate mental health symptoms, but they also can harm the users’ physical health.

“A lot of clients have prescription drugs, like Xanax, that work well for anxiety, but it can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol,” Sherbine said. “A lot of drugs work in the short term, when people self-medicate. If someone has anxiety and has a difficult time leaving home, they might have a few drinks and can leave the house. But they’re masking the problem and not learning coping skills.”

Sherbine said more women than men tend to abuse prescription drugs, while men tend to rely on alcohol to cope with symptoms.

“There’s been an explosion in prescription drug abuse, it’s off the charts, and men surpass women in every other substance except those,” he said. “People with mental health problems are getting prescriptions and often overstate symptoms to get additional prescriptions, which can lead to dependence.”

Pillars treats both the mental health condition and substance abuse problem at the same time in a group therapy program that Sherbine leads. He said treating clients with co-occurring disorders are more difficult to treat than clients with only one condition.

“If you can’t get mental illness symptoms under control, they’re at risk for substance relapse because they want the symptoms to be gone. If they’re not gone, they will treat the symptoms with alcohol or drugs,” he said. “If a person continues to drink or take drugs, the mental illness symptoms get worse. Some of our clients tend to blame themselves and think there’s something wrong with them. We want them to understand there’s nothing wrong with them, there’s something wrong with the problem.”

It’s not always easy to recognize when symptoms become a problem that interfere with daily functioning. Helen Stewart, chief clinical officer at Pillars, said there is no set formula for determining a problem because it looks different for everyone.

“We look for a change in behavior or problems in relationships or the inability to work or do things at home,” she said. “If people find that alcohol or drugs are the only way to cope, then it’s not healthy and they need to find other ways to cope with symptoms because they’ll feel just as bad or worse after.”

The impact of co-occurring disorders on society is significant, not only because of the cost of treatment, but also because of the lost productivity or potential of the client. Families, relationships and employment can all be negatively affected, which can make clients feel like they’re to blame. Sherbine said many clients don’t always have the necessary resources to get all the services they need for treatment.

“Clients with both problems get a double dose of marginalization, and every year, more money gets cut for substance abuse and mental health services from the state. The reason for this is because these clients don’t have a voice in Springfield,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand addiction or mental health. I’m amazed by how intelligent and resilient these people are."

Stewart acknowledges there is a stigma associated with these clients, but she urges anyone who is even questioning if they have a problem to seek a professional evaluation. She said medication may be warranted and can help, but both conditions can be treated through therapy.

“It’s hard to acknowledge that there are issues to address, and you can’t force people to get help,” she said. “This is a bigger problem in our area than people think it is, but there’s help. Clients can recover, move on and lead productive lives.”


Know more

For more information about Pillars, visit or call 708-745-5277.

Pillars serves several communities in the area, including Berwyn, Broadview, Brookfield, Burr Ridge, Cicero, Clarendon Hills, Countryside, Darien, Hinsdale, Hodgkins, Indian Head Park, La Grange, La Grange Park, Lyons, McCook, North Riverside, Oak Brook, Riverside, Stickney, Westchester, Western Springs, Westmont, Willow Springs and Willowbrook.


Note to readers

This is the final piece in a three-part series titled "Addiction in the suburbs." The series is the result of a partnership between Pillars and Suburban Life. The first two pieces can be found at and

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