Recovery leads alumna to career supporting others with substance use disorder


Erin Bergner is a research assistant in the Criminal Justice Research Center at Penn State Abington while managing her recovery and pursuing her master's in clinical and counseling psychology.

Credit: Pam Brobst

ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State Abington alumna Erin Bergner has marked five years in recovery from substance use disorder, and she devotes her professional life to supporting those working through the same challenges. 

Prior to enrolling at Abington, she suffered abuse that led to eating disorders, self-harm, and drug use. She didn’t talk about her distress because of the stigma. 

“By 10th grade, I was using heavier substances, and I was eventually introduced to heroin. My senior year of high school, my parents found out and sent me to rehab. They feared I wouldn’t survive,” she said. 

Bergner spent 50 days in treatment but relapsed, overdosed, then was revived with three doses of Narcan. After a few false starts, she committed herself to recovery and earned her degree with honors from Abington two years ago in psychological and social sciences. She will graduate at the top of her class this fall with a master’s in clinical and counseling psychology from Chestnut Hill College. 

For her master’s program, she completed a required yearlong clinical internship at a community mental health center in Montgomery County. Bergner provided intensive outpatient treatment to a population discharged from in-patient/residential care with co-occurring disorders of mental health and addiction. 

“It was a unique experience now as a clinician having to separate my overall empathy and not take work home and not get too invested in my work,” she said. 

There was a lengthy waitlist for treatment at the center, which was challenging for Bergner to face since her own privilege played a significant role in her recovery.  

"Paramount in my own personal recovery was being able to pay for private treatment. I had recovery capital. I’ve had social support, my physical health, financial health, and my parents' ability to give me access to resources. I never had experiences with homelessness and criminal activities,” she said. 

“When I think about my recovery, it’s not typical. It’s a privileged, unique experience that most individuals don’t have, but I’ve also done a lot of work. I stay humble and vigilant,” she said.   

We’re not just a statistic. We’re individuals with hopes, dreams and struggles.

—Erin Bergner , Penn State Abington alumna

Despite her courseload as an undergraduate and graduate student and maintaining her recovery, Bergner continues to work as a research assistant for Glenn Sterner, assistant professor of criminal justice. Sterner is an expert on the opioid epidemic who leads the Abington office of the University’s Criminal Justice Research Center (CJRC), and he is the founder of The Story Powered Initiative, which is supported by Penn State. 

Bergner joined the CJRC in 2018 after meeting Sterner and sharing her story on The Story Powered Initiative’s predecessor site, which battles stigma around substance use, mental health, public health, disability, justice involvement and incarceration, race, gender, and sexual identity among others through storytelling. 

Bergner’s next steps include earning her state certification to become a licensed professional counselor — which requires 3,000 clinical hours — and pursuing her doctorate. 

“I want people to talk more openly about mental health and disrupt the cycle of stigma. I’m very open about my struggles because I didn’t feel alone after hearing others tell stories that were so similar to mine,” she said. 

“We’re not just a statistic. We’re individuals with hopes, dreams and struggles. Everyone’s recovery looks different. You have to block out the judgments of others and remember that all you have is yourself at the end of the day. Recovery is something no one else can do for you. You have to own it,” Bergner said. 

About Penn State Abington 

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With more than 3,000 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 24 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics and more.