Addiction And Mental Illness: How To Help A Loved One

Addiction and mental illness affect millions of Americans separately, but when they are combined they can cause myriad problems for the individual affected. It’s difficult to study the complete course that substance abuse and mental illness take within a person–or to determine whether one leads to the other–but it’s generally agreed upon by professionals that many individuals living with a mental health issue are at high risk for a substance abuse problem for one or more reasons: they may depend on drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms of their disorder; they may “need” it to sleep or to function; they could be predisposed to addiction because of a family history.

No matter what the cause is, it’s important for friends and family to understand the warning signs and to know how to approach a loved one who is suffering. Handling these situations can be tricky and without a delicate touch, it’s possible to push a loved one away.

One of the first things to keep in mind is that both addiction and mental health issues–such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety–can make a person feel isolated, either because they don’t know how to function around others or because they feel that no one understands what they are going through. They may shut themselves off from others or be reluctant to talk about themselves, but don’t take it personally. Individuals struggling with these issues may not be aware that there is a diagnosable, treatable problem.

The second thing to keep in mind is that substance abuse can exacerbate mental health issues or work against medications the individual may be taking. There is a possibility that this can lead to heightened depression or even suicidal thoughts, so if you feel your loved one is exhibiting worrisome behavior, don’t wait–start a conversation.


Some of the most common warning signs of these disorders include:

  • Insomnia
  • Sleeping too much
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Taking risks
  • Legal troubles
  • Suddenly losing interest in things that once brought joy
  • Lack of energy
  • Isolation
  • Irritability, sudden bouts of anger, physical violence
  • Sudden trouble performing at school or work
  • Physical issues, such as nausea or restlessness

It may be difficult to get your loved one to talk about what they’re feeling, but it’s important to try for their own well-being. Let them know you’re there for them and listen without judgment. Offer to help them find a counselor or therapist and make sure they know they won’t be alone. Make sure they understand that any substance abuse disorders will have to be treated in conjunction with the mental health issue; in order to start down a healthy road, the root issues will have to be dug up and sorted out.


Photo via Pixabay by Geralt