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The SANE Blog

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Supporting someone with substance use issues

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Two friends hugging at the beach.

Caring for someone who has mental health and drug and alcohol issues is complex. It can be hard to tell what came first, the mental illness or the drug and alcohol issues.

Quite often, people use  drugs as a way of coping with their symptoms. While this can mask the effect of their symptoms, if they stop using the drug their issues may return.

For example, using a particular drug may help someone cope with low mood, but if they stop using the drug this symptom of depression will return. This can be an overwhelming feeling and act as a trigger, tempting people to start using again – creating a merry-go-round of substance use problems.

On the other hand, someone may have good mental health, but after using drugs they may experience mental health symptoms.

It is common for people caring for someone with a mental health condition, or drug and alcohol issues, to be unsure of what they can do to help. So how can we support people who are experiencing both mental health and drug or alcohol issues?

Here are some tips to help you support your loved one:

  • Keep communication lines open
    Encourage your loved one to talk about their experiences, and let them know you want to listen without judgment. Ask them questions about how they're going and their substance use. This shows that you care and prevents you from making assumptions. Focus any concerns on behaviour rather than on them as a person. 
  • Be patient
    Depending on where your loved one is in their recovery, they may or may not be willing to use support services. If they’re not ready, this doesn’t mean that they won’t be in the future. As hard as it may be, this is a time when you need to be patient. Unfortunately there is not much you can do other than minimise the harm the drug poses to your loved one and others around them, including family or friends.
  • Remember relapse is part of recovery
    It’s important to remember that relapse (starting to use drugs again) is a normal part of recovery. In fact, most people do not permanently stop using the first time round. What is important is not that they have relapsed, but they are still trying. If your loved one relapses, and is feeling disheartened, remind them that they’re doing well. Instead of focusing on ‘failure’ encourage them to look at what triggered them to use again, so they can overcome the trigger next time. For instance, if your loved one used because they felt anxious, work together to develop ways to cope with this anxiety.
  • Educate yourself
    Knowledge is power. Understanding the effects of the substance, can help you understand its impact on your loved one. For example, using drugs can alter a person’s mood, perception and behaviour. A good place to start is the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, which offers comprehensive information on a range of drug related topics.
  • Suggest an appropriate support service
    If your loved one is open to the idea, suggest they contact a drug, alcohol and mental health support service. If possible, there are ‘dual diagnosis’ services that can assist in the management of problematic substance use and mental health issues.
  • Set clear boundaries
    This is important. Boundaries keep everyone safe and set clear guidelines for communication and behaviour. You can set boundaries for what you feel is necessary in your situation. For example, you may have rules about lending money, or limiting a conversation if it is unproductive. For more tips on setting and keeping boundaries, visit Family Drug Support Australia's website.
  • Look after yourself
    This may be most important of all. Caring for a loved one who is struggling with mental health issues and addiction can be a very challenging and stressful time. Caring for yourself is very important for your own wellbeing, as well as the relationship with your loved one. Looking after yourself is a very personal thing - what works for someone else may not necessarily work for you. It could include a range of things, such as getting a full night’s rest, or zoning out with some trashy TV. Finally, you should establish a support network for yourself. There are organisations that offer support groups and counselling services which can be a great help to carers if the situation becomes too much.

If you would like to discuss your situation, or want more information on supporting someone with mental health and drug and alcohol issues, contact SANE's free counselling service on 1800 187 263 from 10am–10pm AEST Monday to Friday.

You can also connect with others who might understand what you're going through in our Family, Friends & Carers Forum. Starting chatting with people who get it in our safe, online community. 


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