DHHS: How to Support a Loved One in Recovery
Your loved one has made the important step to seek help for their mental health or substance use disorder. How can friends and family best support this healthcare decision?
“First, by normalizing the discussion around mental health and substance use disorders like you would for any other healthcare issue,” said Sheri Dawson, director of the Division of Behavioral Health, noting that September is Recovery Month. “We don’t pretend not to have diabetes or heart disease. Recognize that any chronic healthcare illnesses are life changing. Mental illness and substance use disorders are brain-changers, and your support of your loved one can help them attain and stay in recovery.”
According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, roughly 23.5 million Americans are in recovery from a substance use disorder (SUD), and 38% of adults have a loved one who is in recovery from an SUD. Two upcoming Facebook Lives will address recovery: on Sept. 22 at 11:45 am, Mary Ahern, a certified peer support specialist, will discuss her recovery journey with Jen Hazuka, a consumer specialist for Region 6. On Sept. 29 at 1 pm, Jackie Amos, will discuss recovery from a family member’s point of view with Brenda Moes, consumer affairs program administrator for the Division of Behavioral Health. See Nebraska DHHS’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/NEDHHS for more details.
Language matters, especially when talking about substance use disorders. Stigmatizing language perpetuates negative perceptions. Person-first language focuses on the person, not the disorder. For instance, for a person with substance use disorder, say “a person with a substance use disorder” rather than “an addict, a junkie, or a druggie.”
General advice for you to consider when helping a loved one with substance use disorder:
Promote healthy choices. Help the person remember to make healthy lifestyle choices. These typically include a balanced diet, physical activity, adequate sleep, social interactions, regular health screenings, involvement in a faith community or other meaningful community, and participation in activities they enjoy to promote health.
Say you want to help and discuss ways you can help. Unfortunately a person may be afraid or embarrassed to ask for assistance. Let them know you want to help. Just say, “I am not certain how to help, but I want you to know I’m here to help in any way I can. How can I support you?” Discussing the things you can do and role they want you to play is a great beginning.
Be available. Keep in contact on a regular basis. It’s usually helpful to set a schedule for how often you will check in by phone or in person. It’s also helpful to have a back-up plan to contact another person in case you aren’t able to respond immediately.
Ask for the opportunity to give honest feedback. Keep it positive by providing encouragement and praise for progress toward a specific goal. Offer constructive and supportive comments and continue to support their self-direction in their own life.
Facilitate other supports. A good recovery plan includes multiple supports, so you shouldn’t be the only one helping the person. They may have a therapist and/or prescriber, a support group, and access to peer support services, which involves working with others also in recovery.
Provide hope. Recovery is a lifelong journey and will be challenging and likely have setbacks, just like any other chronic illness. It’s critical to not give up and provide hope. People can and do recover every day.
Take care of yourself. You will be the most effective to support another person when you are your best self. All of the healthy stress management strategies you may be offering your loved one are important for you practice. Enlist additional support when you need a break to recharge your own battery.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers suggestions on supporting someone in recovery from a mental illness, but the advise applies to substance use disorders as well:
- Embrace empathy and validation. Empathy sounds more like, “I don’t know how to help you, but I’m sorry you’re hurting.”
- Resist the urge to say “Try harder.” If your son/wife/brother was having an asthma attack and your help consisted of saying things like “Try harder at breathing,” it would not only be ineffective, it would be unsafe. Mental illnesses are scientific, physiological illnesses and need to be treated as such.
- Let go of your timetable. There is no magic timeframe for wholeness, and certain mental illnesses ebb and flow for many years. Believing that your loved one should be better in a few weeks or months can set everyone up for hardship.
- Encourage outside support and know that you alone can’t fix it. Seeing people we love in pain is hard, especially when we can’t relate to their struggle. People with mental illnesses can greatly benefit from knowing that they are not alone in their diagnosis, their daily struggles, their ups and downs, and their triggers.
Need help for yourself or a loved one? There are a number of resources available to help you, including:
- The Nebraska Family Helpline, 1-888-866-8660, can help callers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Interpreters are available.
- The Rural Response Hotline, 1-800-464-0258, offers connections to mental health counseling, information regarding legal assistance, financial clinics, mediation and emergency assistance. Interpreters are available.
- If you or a loved one are feeling overwhelmed with emotions, anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or someone else, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255 (English) or 1-888-628-9454.
- The new Peer Support Warm Line, which has just been introduced by The Connection Project and its executive director Tommy Newcombe. It offers a 24/7 toll-free number, 877-823-8992, that connects callers with peer support specialists who are in recovery and helps facilitate access to other services.