Your teenaged daughter has been diagnosed with both an anxiety disorder and an alcohol problem. You are reeling from the news, and wonder how this could happen in your family.
Your husband seems depressed and is taking sleeping pills every night. You fear a serious problem may be developing, but it all seems too much to face.
Since your mother died, your father has been grieving and seems less and less able to cope. He has begun to drink heavily. You find it embarrassing to speak to him about this issue, and worry about how your siblings and other family members will react.
Your loved one may have co-occurring mental health and substance use problems—also known as concurrent disorders.
If you are concerned that a member of your family has co-occurring mental health and substance use problems, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. You may feel helpless, sad, stressed, frightened or even angry. Among the most diffi cult feelings are guilt and shame. For example, you may ask yourself: “What did I do wrong? What if other people find out? What will people think? Whom can I trust?”
Feeling ashamed about problems is a sign that there is stigma attached to the situation. “Stigma” refers to negative attitudes prejudice) and negative behaviour (discrimination) toward people with substance use and mental health problems.
Mental health problems or substance use problems on their own can result in stigma. Having both problems together can increase the stigma.
The effects of stigma
The effects of stigma may be even more painful and harmful for families than dealing with the fact that a loved one has substance use and mental health problems.
For example, stigma may lead you to hide your loved one’s problems from your extended family, friends and community. You may isolate yourself and cut off links to people who could provide important social support.
When a person receives prompt treatment for co-occurring mental health and substance use problems, there are much greater hopes for recovery. But stigma can discourage families from seeking care and support for both their loved one and themselves.
You are not alone
It’s easy to believe that you and your loved one are alone in your struggles. In fact, co-occurring mental health and substance use problems are common:
- Among people diagnosed with a mental health problem, 30 per cent will have a substance use problem at some time in their lives.
- Among those with an alcohol problem, 37 per cent will have a mental health problem at some time.
- For people who have a problem with a substance other than alcohol, more than half (53 per cent) will have a mental health problem at some time.
Many other families are dealing with the stress and emotional pain of supporting a family member with co-occurring problems—so you are not alone.
Your feelings are a normal reaction
“My immediate thought is fear of exposure. You know, fear of people’s reactions . . . You’re very fearful of a change in people’s attitudes toward you or toward your family member who’s ill.”
If you have a family member with co-occurring substance use and mental health problems, your entire family is under stress. It is normal to feel a range of difficult emotions, including fear, confusion, anger and hopelessness.
It is also normal to feel ashamed and afraid of judgment. You may want to protect your loved one from prejudice and discrimination. You may also worry that others will see the whole family as flawed, and will perhaps blame you for causing your loved one’s problems. As a family member, you are coming to terms with “stigma by association.”