Substance Use Disorder Must Be Treated as a Medical Problem

Substance Use Disorder Must Be Treated as a Medical Problem

This week’s guest blogger is Tonia Ahern, Advocacy Coordinator at the National Center for Advocacy and Recovery for Behavioral Health (NCAAR) and Family Advocate/Government Affairs at the Mental Health Association in New Jersey.

She shares her personal story of her son, Rory, who sadly lost his life to substance use disorder in 2021, as part of an important documentary, “Untreated & Unheard: The Addiction Crisis in America”, which documents individuals and families impacted by substance use disorder and steps we can take to help make changes.

I urge all of you to take some time and watch this important documentary.

Be well.



By Tonia Ahern

I’m honored to participate in the Partnership to End Addiction documentary, “Untreated & Unheard: The Addiction Crisis in America.” The documentary focuses on families suffering from addiction and the need to treat addiction as a medical problem.

Our son, Rory, was bright and creative, but undiagnosed ADHD made school challenging and led to low self-esteem and mental health issues. We were unaware of the risk of self-medicating for children who struggled to feel normal and in middle school, and he began experimenting with substances. He was just 16 when he first tried an opiate. He later told me that the first time he took the medication it took away the anxiety he had felt most of his life.

Our entire family was affected by Rory’s substance use but there was little support for us. Treatment resources were difficult to find, and none addressed the underlying issues. A week after his 18th birthday, he was charged with third-degree felony possession. We were told that punitive consequences would stop his use, but the trauma he experienced added to Rory’s issues. He spent the next 11 years in court supervision for possession charges and positive drug tests that led to violations. He was trapped in a system that didn’t recognize his mental health or medical issues resulting from years of substance use and multiple overdoses.

I searched for help for years before learning of an organization that supported family members and their loved ones. I was never comfortable with the “tough love” approach to helping my son, and it was the first time someone had compassion and empathy for my son as well as my family. I was introduced to advocacy and was invited to attend meetings and trainings where I learned about mental health and substance use from experts. 

In 2015, I was trained as a parent coach with the Partnership to End Addiction. I was given a toolbox of skills to support families, including my own. I learned the importance of listening, and my relationship with my son changed. I began to understand the challenges and barriers that kept Rory, and others like him, from getting well. He became my greatest teacher.

We were devastated when we lost Rory in July 2021. After he passed, friends and parents messaged me that he had given them my number for resources and help for their families. I had hoped that one day we would tell our stories together to educate and advocate for change. I had no idea that we had already been advocating together. I know he would’ve been proud to have his story shared in this powerful documentary.


Notice: This article reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ). This information should not be construed as legal advice from the author or PDFNJ. Please consult your own attorney before making any legal decisions

Blog Updates

Enter your email address and we'll send you an email each time we post something new.