How to support someone living with substance use disorder

July 20, 2021 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
substance use

Working to overcome alcohol or substance use disorder has always been challenging, but the pandemic has made it even tougher. More people have turned to substances as a way of dealing with anxiety, depression, and stress and getting access to treatment when many in-person treatment options weren’t available made getting or staying on track with recovery even more difficult.

Recent data from National Center for Health Statistics highlights the human cost of the ongoing struggle with substance use. In 2020 in the U.S., there were 93,000 drug overdose deaths, a 30% increase over the number of deaths recorded in 2019 and the biggest increase in overdose deaths since the U.S. has collected data on drug-related deaths.

Getting consistent treatment and the support of family and friends can help people working to overcome substance use disorder get on track and stay on track better with the process of recovery. Over time, that can help reduce the risk of an overdose or other health problems related to substance use like heart, liver, and immune system problems.

What family and friends can do

There are a number of steps you can take to help the people you care about who are struggling with substance use:

  • Learn about substance use disorder and treatment options. Substance use disorder is a complex condition and is often complicated by the fact that the person is also living with a mental health issue like anxiety or depression. The more you learn about the disorder and the available treatment options and how to combat the stigma surrounding substance use disorder, the better you’ll be able to support your family member or friend. It’s important to focus on evidence-based sources of information so talk with your primary care physician, a mental health professional, or gather information from a resource like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
  • Communicate openly. Talk with your family member or friend and invite her or him to share their experiences with substance use, what triggers them to use substances, how they feel about their use of substances, and what issues they feel it’s causing for their health, mental wellbeing, life, and relationships. It’s important for your discussions to be non-judgmental so that they’ll be open to ongoing conversations and feel comfortable coming to you to talk.
  • Help them build coping skills. Stress is often a trigger for substance and alcohol use. Unfortunately, it’s also an unavoidable part of life. The key is to help your friend or family member build skills that help them cope with and defuse stress, which may help them avoid using substances to cope. In addition to letting them know you’re available when they need to talk or vent, you can explore other stress management skills with them like meditation, movement-based techniques like yoga and tai chi, breathing exercises, and defusing stress through exercise. To help them build these skills, offer to take part in learning and practicing the techniques with them.
  • Encourage them to seek treatment. Talk with them about discussing their problem and potential treatment approaches with their primary care physician or a mental health professional. If they need and want support, offer to attend the appointment with them. If they’re living with a co-occurring mental health issue, help them find a provider who can offer treatment for their anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other issues. A health advisor can help you connect with specialists in addiction medicine and mental health as well.
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