Insight Treatment is Now Clear Behavioral Health!

How to Talk to Someone with an Addiction or Mental Illness

Home » Our Blog » How to Talk to Someone with an Addiction or Mental Illness

Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on May 15, 2024

If someone you love was injured or ill, you would do what was necessary to help them get better. You should approach a loved one suffering from addiction or a mental disorder in a similar way.

It’s easy to react to the knowledge that someone you love is addicted to drugs with anger unless you realize that it is an illness. You might also be very confused about behavior that could stem from mental illness.

First, it’s very helpful to educate yourself about addiction and mental disorders. This will help you navigate how to live with and communicate effectively with the person while they’re not feeling like themselves.

What is Addiction?

In order to communicate with and support someone struggling with addiction, it’s important to fully understand what addiction is.

This condition isn’t a character flaw or something that can be overcome only by the user’s sheer determination. It is a serious disease of the brain that comes in many forms and different types of addiction. It occurs when an individual persistently consumes alcohol or illicit drugs despite the negative effects they produce. Individuals often engage in drug abuse because of the feelings of euphoria or relaxation they offer, believing that this altered state is better than their normal lives.

Addiction can be caused by a variety of factors, including social influences, genetics, and family background. (Although it’s important not to blame yourself and internalize guilt – this isn’t healthy or productive for the addicted person or you.)

To properly recover and prevent relapse it’s recommended that people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol seek behavioral counseling and ways to effectively deal with stress. Many people struggling with drug and alcohol use suffer with mental health problems alongside drug dependency (known as a co-occurring disorder), and counseling can help treat both.

Before achieving sobriety, people engaging in problematic drug or alcohol use often develop denial and deceitful behaviors. Because of the nature of addiction, communicating and living with family members struggling with drug and alcohol abuse can be difficult due to these behaviors. The following is a guide for communicating and living with a loved one who’s suffering from addiction and possible co-occurring disorders.

How to Talk to Someone With an Addiction

Communicating with someone struggling with drug addiction can be difficult. You don’t want to offend them by saying too much or ignore the issue by not saying enough. It is difficult to find a conversational balance that makes both of you feel comfortable.

It’s also incredibly hard to address concerns with someone suffering from mental illness. You might find that they are overly ‘negative’, aggressive, withdrawn or paranoid, and don’t respond well to you asking them what’s wrong. This might dissuade communicating with them but ultimately can worsen their current condition.

Consider these following tips for communicating with your loved one:

Have a one-on-one conversation

Don’t address issues over a family dinner or in public. Set time aside to speak in a calm, private environment and make them aware of your concerns.

Be open to learning more about their struggles and their condition itself. It’s common for well-intentioned family members and friends to inadvertently belittle and criticize those suffering from a substance use disorder. This way of communicating is ineffective and could potentially hinder the healing process.

Display empathy

It’s difficult to know what dependence on a substance feels like if you have never experienced it. The same goes for suffering with a mental illness.

Try to empathize with your loved one. Listen as much, if not more, as you speak when talking about how they feel. Accept and love them as a person, but make it clear that any destructive behavior won’t be accepted and requires help.

Focus on them

Experts suggest avoiding phrases like:

If you keep using, I’m never speaking to you again!

Can you stop drinking, for me?

Why haven’t you been texting me back? Is it because you were drinking again?

This type of language centers the conversation on you. With these statements and questions, you are essentially telling the user, “I need you to stop using drugs or consuming alcohol because it negatively affects me.”

Even though this is likely true, avoid phrasing your concerns in this way. Instead, focus on the person. Show them how their substance abuse negatively affects their family and personal life, career aspirations, and health. Express your worries without framing the conversation around yourself.

Be mindful of what you say

It is acceptable, and even encouraged, to talk with people suffering from addiction about their problem. Broach discussing their feelings, struggles, and possibly how to seek treatment options.

It’s important to maintain a sense of normalcy in conversing with your loved one. For anyone, communication is essential to feeling a sense of belonging and importance. Addiction can make it difficult for someone to communicate in a productive and meaningful way. Facilitate everyday conversation to diminish a user’s feelings of isolation or shame.

Be mindful in what you say when doing so. In everyday conversation, don’t refer to their past drug-induced shenanigans. Don’t talk about your recreational alcohol consumption if you know that will make them long for a drink.

Living with an Addicted Loved One

Whether it be a sibling, roommate, parent, or significant other, living with an addicted loved one can be difficult. If you aren’t cautious in your words and actions, your mental health and your loved one’s recovery process can suffer. Here are some tips for living with an addicted loved one and how to support them

Accept the reality of your situation

Even if your loved one has always smoked or drank, their recreational habits could have developed into substance abuse or addiction. It’s important for you to address their addiction as a serious problem that requires intervention. If you recognize and accept their condition, you’ll be able to more effectively encourage them to seek professional treatment.

Manipulation may ensue. Those who abuse drugs and alcohol are notorious for tricking themselves and others into thinking they don’t have a problem that requires treatment. Kindly but firmly combat these manipulations, help them recognize their problem, and encourage them to seek help.

Learn the signs of enablement

If you are allowing the user in your household to continue their drug or alcohol consumption, you are enabling them. Become familiar with these signs of enablement:

  • Lying to your loved one’s family, friends, school, or place of work to cover for their behavior
  • Providing money to your loved one that you know they will spend on their habit
  • Blatantly ignoring or denying your loved one’s problem
  • Giving priority to your loved one’s needs over your own

Recognize if you are enabling your loved one and work on stopping these behaviors.

Practice self-care

Living with an addicted loved one can take up a lot of your mental energy. Be sure to set aside time for yourself. Resume hobbies you once enjoyed and go out with friends. If you are comfortable with it, consider joining a support group. Speaking with others who are dealing with similar circumstances will help you learn how to navigate living with an addicted loved one. 

Allow Clear Behavioral Health to Help

Clear Behavioral Health offers assistance to people struggling with substance abuse, mental health disorders, and their families. We have different programs offering a full continuum of care to meet patients’ needs whether you’re struggling with addiction, mental health, or both.

If you or a loved one is struggling, contact Clear Behavioral Health to learn more about substance abuse programs including medical detox and residential rehab for stabilization and dual diagnosis outpatient programs for ongoing support. We also offer primary mental health care such as residential mental health treatment for severe conditions, outpatient mental health programs, and virtual treatment options. Get in contact with us today to start the healing process for both you and your loved one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mental Health Services and Addiction Treatment in Los Angeles
Take the next step. Call us now.

Take the next step. Call us now.

Are you a good fit for an intensive outpatient program?

I struggle with burnout, depression, or anxiety

I am exhausted and no amount of sleep seems to help

I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work I need to do

​​I have tried talk therapy and need more support

Has a clinician referred you to IOP treatment?