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Helping a Loved One through Co-Occurring Addiction & Mental Illness

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on April 5, 2024

It’s so difficult to watch a loved one suffer through drug addiction. This is especially true if they are your child or close relative. They can have problems holding a job and keeping personal relationships – something you never want for your child. Those issues are doubled when they suffer from a co-occurring mental illness as well.

Very often, addiction develops as a coping mechanism for mental illness. People suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, or other disorders feel frightened by what’s happening in their heads and look to drugs or alcohol to distract from their pain. Mental illnesses can also be caused by drug use. Either way, the two are often linked and therefore treating one without the other is often totally ineffective.

Co-occurring disorders are not only trying on the user, but they also affect the people in their lives. Clear Behavioral Health offers help for family members of drug addicts and those with mental health disorders.

How to Help Someone With Drug Addiction and a Mental Illness Such As Depression

In addition to seeking professional help for your child or loved one, there are steps you can take at home to help them. Consider implementing these 5 tips for how to deal with a drug addict with co-occurring disorders.

1. Learn more about their illnesses

Addiction is widely misunderstood. A social stigma persists around this condition.

A drug user isn’t a deadbeat stoner who engages in poor lifestyle choices. Addicts suffer from a legitimate chronic disease. Although initially using drugs is a personal decision, the effects of repeated drug use are outside of a user’s control. Frequent drug use results in chemical changes within the brain. These chemical changes can also cause or escalate a mental illness.

This makes self-control difficult and increases a user’s dependence on illicit substances.

To know how to deal with an addict, you need to understand the severity of addiction and mental illness. It will help you and them to become familiar with co-occurring treatment methods and options available to your loved one.

Becoming educated helps family members of drug users in the following ways:

  • It eliminates blame. Educated family members don’t blame their loved one’s condition on stubbornness, stupidity or a lack of willpower. They understand that the condition is a serious disease that requires intervention.
  • It offers hope. Upon learning about the various treatment options available, you will feel empowered and confident in your loved one achieving a successful recovery. This could well rub off on them too.

Utilize online resources and books from bookstores or libraries to educate yourself on addiction and mental disorders and how they are treatable.

2. Build a solid support system

Drug addiction is surprisingly common. According to the American Addiction Centers, a little less than 40% of adults struggled with drug abuse in 2017. This means that there are millions of people just like you who want to help their loved ones but are unsure of where to start.

There is lots of help available for parents of addicted individuals with co-occurring disorders. Groups like Nar-Anon offer safe spaces for family to learn how dependence on illicit substances is negatively affecting their lives and how to help their loved ones overcome their condition.

From these types of support groups, you can:.

  • Promote a healthy relationship with your loved one
  • Develop ways to deal with stress
  • Enhance your quality of life
  • Improve your own mental health

Take advantage of this type of help for a parent of a drug addict. Attending groups will aid in your loved one’s co-occurring disorder recovery process and better your own circumstances.

3. Attend therapy

Learning how to deal with an addict shouldn’t be done on your own. Therapy is a great resource that allows you to see your situation from a different perspective. Structured therapy sessions help you dedicate time to communicate your feelings, doubts, and worries, which might be difficult to do in your daily life. Two types of therapy offer significant help for family members of drug addicts:

Family therapy

Sit-down therapy sessions with addicts and their parents, siblings or spouses can be incredibly helpful to the recovery process. Communication will be facilitated in a relaxed and non-judgmental environment. One of the many goals is pinpointing the origins of distrust and guilt to learn how to overcome these negative feelings together. 

Individual therapy

Meeting with a personal counselor one-on-one can help you deal with your personal emotions away from the addicted person. Combat destructive thoughts and obtain additional skills like anger management and assertiveness that will help you help your loved one through their recovery process.

4. Partake in self-care

It can be easy to neglect taking care of yourself when you have a user in your life. All of your time can be consumed with worry for their well-being. It’s important to take care of yourself so you can be physically and emotionally available to help them through their recovery.

When partaking in self-care, be sure to include your loved one when possible. These activities benefit their well-being, make recovery from co-occurring disorders easier, and serve as effective distractions. Incorporate the following practices into your daily life:

  • Eat healthily. Prepare meals and host family dinners regularly. This is great for everyone’s health and encourages communication over a tasty meal.
  • Take up a hobby. Have your loved one accompany you to a music lesson or painting class. Learning a new skill together will foster communication and offer a sense of relaxation and fulfillment.
  • Exercise regularly. Go on evening runs or do yoga. Exercising helps to relieve stress and promote good sleep. It releases feel-good chemicals in the brain like oxytocin and dopamine – chemicals that drugs replicate artificially. It also improves mental health. Getting someone who is addicted or depressed to exercise isn’t easy, but it’s worth a try.
  • Establish a sleep schedule. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night and encourage anyone struggling with drug issues or mental illness to do the same. Being well-rested will help each of you focus on the recovery process and decrease feelings of exhaustion and stress.

5. Become an advocate

Take steps to educate people about addiction and mental illness; including the person themselves. Of course, don’t divulge that someone is addicted to drugs or mentally ill without their consent unless it’s to medical professionals or people who need to know, like a parent or caregiver. 

Unless they’ve had first-hand experiences with it, many don’t understand addiction as a disease or mental illness entirely. They can become judgmental and lack empathy. Negative reactions can make recovery much more difficult.

Speak up when you hear any language being used that promotes stigma around addiction, like the words “clean” and “dirty” when referring to sobriety. Counter ignorance with facts. Understand that as an advocate, you can continuously learn new ways to help your loved one.

Get in Touch with Clear Behavioral Health

In addition to following these tips for helping an addict get into treatment, get in contact with Clear Behavioral Health. Our team is dedicated to providing help for you or someone you know who is struggling with drug addiction and mental illness such as depression and anxiety. Our team of professionals will guide your family and your loved one to recover from their illnesses.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Trends & Statistics.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Today’s Heroin Epidemic.

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