When family members face a loved one with mental health or substance abuse problems

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When a family member is confronted with the mental health or substance abuse problems of a loved one the issues can be overwhelming. Why has their loved one done this to their life? Why are they so weak? How can they help? Why isn’t the person helping themselves? Should they help? What could they do to help? Where do you get help?

The responses of different family members can vary and be changeable. The problem, though, is very real: what is a family member supposed to do when they learn that a person they love has mental health or substance abuse problems? The problem can involve: a husband, wife, father, mother, child, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, nephew, niece or grandparent. There are no age, gender or other social factors that would prevent a person from having mental health or substance abuse problems.

The family may blame themselves and feel incredibly guilty or they may want to distance themselves from the person and their problem. They may feel depressed or anxious as they look upon the person and their life difficulties or they feel anger and disgust. There can a wide range of feelings experienced by family members as they begin to deal with how they are going to help their loved one. Some families may seek to control the person’s life and force them into treatment. Others may “pull back” emotionally and physically as they distance themselves from the person to gain some relief for themselves. We know from our experiences in working with people with problems and their families that emotions can run strong and that over the course of treatment and time a balance will return.

Who Can Help Us?

The reality is that most families are poorly equipped to personally help a family member or loved one who is struggling with mental health and or substance abuse problems. The emotional connection and the presence of highly charged feelings prevent the family members from being objective. The other barrier is simply one of lacking the skills to talk with the person or offer guidance about what help is available and where it can be found. Often we hear from families in these crisis situations where they call to say “my loved one needs treatment and can we bring them to your program”. In many cases we find out that the family is reaching out for options, but the person with the problem is not ready for help or treatment. We guide the family through the process of beginning to talk with a loved one with mental health or substance abuse problems and to encourage them to have the person speak with one of our counselors. Or, we speak with them about using the services of a trusted mental health counselor, an intervention professional or a church leader to begin the discussion. We ask them not to stop loving their family member who is having problems. We may talk with them about attending family supports groups like Al-anon which provides an ongoing place for family members to deal with their lives and share the experiences of others going through the same problems.

Treatment Can Bring Families Together

Once treatment begins, it is important to family members to get involved in the treatment as requested by the treatment professionals. They may be asked to attend family sessions while the person is in the intensive inpatient phase of treatment or once they enter into partial hospitalization or outpatient services. Family members may be encouraged to seek treatment on their own to deal with their feelings and emotions apart from family or couples therapy. Through the process of treatment and dealing with the issues we have seen families grow stronger and healthier.

The long-term issues faced by a loved one with mental health or substance abuse problems require a strong support system. It’s not solely up the person who is identified as having “problems” to “get better”. It’s a job which requires the entire family to remain supportive, loving and realistic.

Dealing with the mental health and substance abuse problems in a family member can be a real challenge. It can be best addressed through learning about the problem, finding and accessing treatment resources and in strengthening the family to face the future. Going to treatment is not a sign of weakness, but it is a sign of strength. The family member who is living with mental health and or substance abuse problems needs to be surrounded by people who can help from a healthy perspective.

Help Requires Action

Click on these links to learn more about how the mental health treatment programs and substance abuse treatment programs of Brookhaven Hospital can help you or a family member.