The pandemic has made the difficult work of recovering from alcohol or substance use disorder even harder. To deal with the heightened anxiety, depression, and stress caused by the pandemic, more people have turned to alcohol and substances. In addition, it’s been harder for people in recovery to stay on track when many in-person treatment options were limited, and they had to rely on online resources and meetings.
The National Center for Health Statistics recently released new data that puts the growing toll of substance use in stark relief. In the U.S. in 2020, 93,000 people died as a result of drug overdoses, a 30 percent increase over the number of overdose deaths in 2019. The increase is the largest since the U.S. started collecting data on drug-related deaths.
How family and friends can help support recovery
Consistent, quality treatment and support from family and friends are key elements in a successful recovery process. They also can help reduce the risk of an overdose or the development of other health problems related to substance use like heart, liver, and immune system problems, and an increased risk for diseases like hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS.
These four steps, while admittedly not always easy, can help you support people you care about who are struggling with active substance use or recovery:
1. Educate yourself. Substance use disorder is a complex condition. In addition, the situation is often complicated by the fact that the person is also living with a mental health issue like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, or PTSD and is using substances and/or alcohol to self-medicate. The more you learn about substance use disorder, the treatments available, and how you can help combat the stigma surrounding substance use disorder and mental health, the better prepared you’ll be to support your family member or friend. Focus on evidence-based sources of information. Some good resources include your primary care physician, a licensed mental health professional, and non-profit organizations like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). While some for-profit rehabilitation centers provide evidence-based information on their websites, it’s best to be more cautious with these sources since some are heavily focused on their bottom line rather than safely achieving positive outcomes for clients.
2. Communicate without judgment. Talk with your family member or friend and ask her or him to share their experiences with substance use, what triggers them, how they feel about their use of substances, and how they feel it’s affecting their health, mental wellbeing, life, and relationships. Your discussions should be non-judgmental so that they’ll be comfortable opening up to you and be willing to continue the conversation over time.
3. Help them learn coping skills. Stress often triggers substance and alcohol use in people living with this disorder. Unfortunately, stress is an unavoidable, integral part of life. The key is to encourage your friend or family member to build skills that help them cope with and better manage stress, which may help them avoid turning to substances to cope. As a first step, let them know you’re available to talk when they’re overwhelmed or want to vent their frustrations or worries. You can also help them explore other stress management skills like meditation, yoga and tai chi, guided imagery, breath focus, and defusing stress through exercise. You can support them as they build these coping skills by being their partner in learning and practicing the techniques.
4. Encourage them to seek treatment. If they’re not already in recovery or have gotten off track with their recovery, encourage them to discuss their substance use and potential treatment approaches with their primary care physician or a mental health professional. If they need and want support, you could 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 as well as their substance use disorder.
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