Former Child Star Reflects on Struggles with Addiction, Eating Disorders, Mental Illness

By Hugh C. McBride

From 1969 to 1974, Maureen McCormick was a member of what many people consider to be the perfect American family: The Brady Bunch. And though McCormick's on-screen alter ego, Marcia Brady, continues to live a life of suburban bliss on television screens around the world, the decades have been decidedly more difficult for the actress herself.

During a May 20 appearance at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco, Calif., McCormick discussed her struggles with drug addiction, depression, and eating disorders. According to a May 20 article by L.A. Times writer Shari Roan, McCormick also addressed her family's history of mental illness, and the conflicting feeling she experienced about discussing these matters with her own daughter, who is now 20 years old:

“Secrets are no good,” said McCormick. "I was brought up in a family where we had so many secrets. It felt so good to let the world know I was human and suffered from depression and I wasn’t that perfect person everyone thought I was.” ...

McCormick has a horrifying family history of mental illness, from suicidal grandparents to a mentally ill mother to brothers who are schizophrenic. In her appearance at the APA, she described feelings of emotional pain and sadness that began early in her life, even before she discovered her family’s turbulent mental health history.

“I felt alone and had this deep down sadness, that I didn’t know what it was,” she said. "It was this pain that didn’t go away.”

McCormick's May 20 address was the latest in a series of appearances that she has made to discuss her drug addiction, depression, and eating disorders – topics that she began to acknowledge in public in the months preceding the October 2008 publication of her autobiography, Here’s the Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice.

Addiction & Mental Illness

Though McCormick's challenges (including drug addiction, mental illness, and bulimia) may sound like an unfortunate confluence of personal misfortune, the reality is that dual (or multiple) diagnoses are not that uncommon.

The following statistics related to addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness were provided by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and are based upon data collected during the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH):

  1. About 17.5 million adults aged 18 or older (8 percent of the population of that demographic group) were estimated to have a serious mental illness in the past year. About four million of the adults with a serious mental illness in 2002 also were dependent on or abused alcohol or an illicit drug; that is, they had a co-occurring substance abuse and mental disorder.
  2. More than half of the adults who had co-occurring serious mental illness and a substance use disorder received neither specialty substance use treatment nor mental health treatment during the past year.
  3. Among adults with co-occurring disorders, 34 percent received mental health treatment only, 2 percent received specialty substance use treatment only, and 12 percent received both mental health and specialty substance use treatment during the past year.

Eating Disorders and Addiction

In a July 22, 2008 article that was posted on Web4Health, Swedish psychologist and eating disorder expert Gunborg Palme addressed the prevalence with which individuals who are suffering from eating disorders are also likely to experience substance abuse and addiction:

A similarity between eating disorders and drug addiction is that the addiction is compulsively developed into an even stronger form regardless of the effect on the patient's health. Despite serious medical complications, it is difficult for addicts to give up their addiction.

Starvation in anorexia reduces the activity of the hormone Serotonin and this in turn reduces anxiety in a patient with an overactive nervous system.

Patients with anorexia are, less often than others, drug addicts and alcoholics while those with other eating disorders more often are so. Those anorectics who alternate between eating attacks and starvation are more like bulimics.

In an April 5, 2007 appearance on ABC's “Good Morning America,” Maureen McCormick said that her struggles with an eating disorder began in the mid-1970s, when she returned to high school following the end of “The Brady Bunch.” She began bingeing and purging to maintain her weight, engaging in a behavior that unfortunately affects tens of thousands of girls and young women (and many boys and young men) in the United States.

Experts estimate that as many as one in five women will suffer from an eating disorder, and that more than 10 percent of U.S. high school students have an eating disorder. Statistics provided by SAMHSA indicate that women account for 90 percent of those who suffer from eating disorders.

Help for Eating Disorders, Addiction, and Mental Illness

Suffering from an eating disorder, an addiction, or a mental illness can be an isolating experience. Suffering from a combination of these disorders may make a person feel as if there is no hope.

But there is hope. In recent decades, a number of reputable and effective residential recovery programs have established treatment tracks that are specifically designed for individuals who are suffering from co-occurring addictions, mental illness, and eating disorders.

For example, The Victorian of Newport Beach (a residential recovery program for women who are suffering from eating disorders) provides a wide range of therapeutic services that are designed to identify and address co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders.

Located near The Victorian, The Rose of Newport Beach is a residential addiction recovery program that features dual diagnosis treatment for women whose addiction problems are compounded by anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and bipolar disorder.

Addictions, eating disorders, and mental health issues can be daunting, but they also can be treated. Dual diagnoses and co-occurring disorders can be especially problematic, but with effective professional treatment, people who suffer from these challenges can overcome the obstacles that are preventing them from pursuing their greatest potential.

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