When to Worry
How to Spot Warning Signs
of Substance Abuse in a Loved One

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Substance abuse disorders affect millions of Americans every year--an estimated 24 million, to be exact. The reasons for drug and alcohol abuse are many and varied, but the symptoms are usually similar in almost everyone, making it easier to spot a problem for friends and family.

For some, drugs and alcohol numb the painful memories they’ve retained after suffering physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or after witnessing violent combat in the military. In fact, veterans are considered to be hugely at risk for developing drug and alcohol dependencies, especially if they suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). It’s important to get to the root of why a person abuses drugs or alcohol so that those issues can be resolved along with recovery. Understanding that these substances only exacerbate symptoms and prolong true recovery by using avoidance to cope is key when choosing a healthy path.

Mental illness and mood disorders can also factor into substance abuse. Depression, undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are examples of conditions that could cause a person to turn to drugs or alcohol in order to cope with the symptoms. Unfortunately, substances change physical properties of the brain and can do more harm than good where these disorders are concerned. It’s imperative that anyone exhibiting symptoms of a mood or mental disorder seek professional help immediately, and that they be completely honest with their caregiver about which substances they abuse and when. Drugs and alcohol can mask some disorders and make them harder to diagnose.

Some of the most common warning signs of substance abuse include:

  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Decline in health or appearance
  • Sudden legal trouble
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Changes in appetite
  • Acting out, or lashing out
  • Risky behaviors

If your loved one is exhibiting these behaviors, don’t be afraid to start a conversation with them about your concerns for their well-being. Let them know you’re listening, but don’t offer judgmental statements about their activities or actions. Chances are, they are already suffering from low self-esteem or guilt and already feel low. Simply let them know you’re there for them and that they are not alone. Offer to help them find a therapist or counselor, or, if they are uncomfortable with speaking to a stranger, perhaps an anonymous online support group. Sometimes, talking about the reasons for our actions can be hugely beneficial in healing and moving forward.

Often, family issues are at the center of substance abuse, and can lead to strife within the home. If a loved one’s substance abuse has caused problems within the family, consider seeking a therapist to help you work out the issues. Sometimes it’s too much to tackle on our own, and when more than two people are involved in a conversation, things can get loud or out of control.

Because drugs and alcohol can have adverse effects on just about every part of a person’s life, it’s important to offer support to your loved one even if you’re feeling upset. Try to keep your opinions about their actions to yourself unless a therapist advises you to talk it out and work on helping your loved one heal instead. It will be a long road, and it won’t always be easy, but remember you are not alone. Find the best resources for your family and see them through.

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About the Author

Jennifer Woodson enjoys serving the public as a writer for PublicHealthCorps.org. The site is dedicated to putting the public back into public health by serving as a hub of reputable and useful public information on health topics.


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