Depression and substance abuse occurring in the same person is not uncommon. Imagine that you feel depressed. Take your saddest day, your worst and most hopeless mood and multiply it by 10 and then extend it for weeks and weeks. That will give you an idea of what it feels like to have depression. Now, if drugs and alcohol could help you escape from that reality, even if just for a few hours, wouldn’t you be tempted? This is called self-medication, and millions of people do it. The problem is that it isn’t a solution and it can make mental illness worse. If you recognize this practice in someone you care about, step in and help them get help. Here are some steps you can take:
- Talk to her. This sounds painfully obvious, but many people tip-toe around depression and other kinds of mental illness. Don’t be afraid to talk to her about what you’re seeing or to tell her that you are worried. It isn’t always easy to see our own behaviors and to recognize them as harmful. If you can start the conversation, you may see a lightbulb go off in her head and she may begin to realize she needs help.
- Research options. Telling someone you love that she needs professional help is only the first step. She may feel lost about what to do next. Offer to go to the doctor with her and then look into what her treatment options are. Help her evaluate the choices, figure out her finances and make a final choice about what step to take next.
- Being a good listener can help your loved one immensely. She may need to pour out her heart to someone, and you can be that person. To listen well means to listen actively. Hear what she says and respond accordingly. Listen without judgment. You can make suggestions, but remember that you are not an expert and your most important role is to listen and support.
- Keep her away from drugs and alcohol. You can’t force anyone to stop using drugs or alcohol, but you can help her avoid them. When you spend time together, don’t go to a bar. Don’t drink in front of her. Do things together that don’t involve drinking and encourage her to spend time with sober friends.
- Plan fun activities. Distractions are often helpful, and they certainly can’t hurt, so plan some activities for the two of you to enjoy. Go to the movies, take a run together, get involved in a community sports team, plan a vacation together or take an art class. Any positive and engaging activity can help keep your loved one from turning to drugs or alcohol.
- Encourage treatment. The most important thing your loved one can do to avoid substance abuse and to feel better is to get treatment for her depression. This is a chronic illness that can’t be cured, but it can be treated successfully. Keep tabs on her therapy appointments and make sure she gets to them. Drive her if necessary. If she is taking medication, make sure she is following her doctor’s instructions and make note of any side effects you notice. Speak up if you do, because she may not notice them.
Helping a loved one who struggles with depression can be heartbreaking and frustrating. Add to that battle the urge to abuse drugs or alcohol and you have a very difficult situation. The most important thing you can do is help her to get treatment. After that, you simply need to support her and be there for her when she needs you.