If my child has an addiction plus a mental illness, where do I start?

If your adult child struggles with addiction, you may already be aware of the connection1 between mental health and substance abuse: “Substance use disorders also co-occur at high prevalence with mental disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychotic illness, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.”

Which do you address first — and why? Should you tackle the mental health diagnosis first? Would this resolve the issue of addiction? If we don’t tackle the mental health issue first, will your child be able to overcome substance abuse? These questions are common. When your family is faced with both challenges at the same time, it can be overwhelming to understand where to start.

When do I know that it’s time to take a step forward to address the addiction first, and then the mental illness

Here are the signs you need to look for in your own life; the signs that it’s time to do something different when it comes to addressing your adult child’s addiction and prioritize your efforts.

  • Your child is using drugs or alcohol and may be addicted, and you know this because:
  • Your child no longer looks and/or behaves like the child you raised.
  • Your child has crisis after crisis in his/her life and is unable to navigate through them.
  • You hide a lot of what is happening from friends and family.
  • You feel responsible and like a failure as a parent.
  • Doctors or other medical professionals have told you and your child that they have something else going on. ADHD, depression, mental illness, social anxiety — these are all common diagnoses among those struggling with substance abuse as well. If you don’t yet have a diagnosis, you suspect your child is facing one of these issues.

What have you tried in the past to help address addiction first, before mental health struggles? Are you trying these methods now — unsuccessfully?

Method 1: You hire a medical professional — like a psychiatrist or psychologist — to address or medicate the underlying mental health issue. You create a treatment plan that you think will address the problems and hopme that will help the substance abuse issue disappear also.

Method 2: You’ve searched for a rehab program that not only deals with the addiction at hand, but also includes strategies that address co-occurring mental health conditions, and cross your fingers that it’s all your child needs to want to choose recovery.

Method 3: Read and researched all of the material written by “smart people” about mental illnesses and addiction, and how they connect, with the hope that you'll be able to one day leverage this wealth of knowledge and help your child make changes in their life.

If these methods have not worked for you, I have another approach to recommend. Here's why this approach is important to try.

It is very common for there to be both mental health and addiction issues co-occurring.

Accept that the addiction must be solved first, before underlying mental health issues can be treated or handled. Stop focusing on the underlying mental health issues as the “reason” for your child’s use of drugs or alcohol. They may be the reason or they may not.

The exception to this is when your child was diagnosed with a mental health issue years before any usage started, and you are 100% sure of that. In that case, please rely on the appropriate medical expert. If this is the case, you may also benefit from the family training NAMI offers.

Focus on learning the things you need to learn to love and support a child with an addiction. Loving them is very different from loving and supporting your other children, and it’s important to understand how to Love Another Way. You’ll be there to help support your child’s mental health journey once the addiction is addressed.

Why is it important to Love Another Way?

Understand that it’s impossible to know what actions of your child are due to addiction and which actions are a result of a mental illness — it could be months before they’re clean of all substances. My son Eric was diagnosed with several mental health issues, and after he completed recovery, I expected a long list of other things we needed to address. They never came up, however, and I’ve learned this is a very, very common situation.

As parents, we prefer to think that our child is primarily struggling because of their mental illness instead of addressing the addiction at the core of their difficulties in life. Remember -- addiction is no more a child’s fault than mental health issues. Focus on the addiction; it must be dealt with first to then sort through mental health issues.

Most importantly, those with addiction will blame anything around them for their troubles instead of ever blaming their actual addiction. This means they’ll place blame on their mental health issues, on you as a parent, or on other family members. Of course, these are all excuses and nothing will change until we stop buying into it.

Take this first step now.

I’ve put together a couple of short snippets on the topic of addiction versus mental illness. Listen to them here. When you talk about or think about what is happening with your child, say to yourself or out loud: My child has an addiction problem. My child may also have a mental health issue or issues. The first thing to resolve is the addiction problem. Then, the mental health issues can be tackled.

Click here to listen to these discussions

Then take step two: Listen to my workshop. Discover HOW to Actually Address the Addiction Issue.

My son was diagnosed with a laundry list of mental illnesses while he was in his addiction. I talk about this and how I had to navigate it in my workshop, Sign up at the button below.

Hop on my workshop now.

Watch this workshop to find out how to actually address addiction.

I hope you find a pocket of joy in your day today.
Reach out anytime, because I care.

Barbara

Certified Family Recovery Specialist (CFRS)

Leave a Comment:

18 comments
Jayme says April 19, 2021

Hi,
My 22 year old son has stopped using marijuana which I’m very thankful for. However, he also stopped his bipolar meds and is starting hypomania/manic behaviors again. He will be moving out of my house soon (his decision, not mine). Can your workshop help with boundry setting with this type of situation?

Reply
    Barbara Decker says April 20, 2021

    Hi Jayme,

    Yes, this approach works with anyone who has the disease of addiction and/or mental illnesses. Many of my students have only the mental illness piece, others have only the addiction piece, and many have both.

    Reply
Chaya Cain says April 12, 2021

Interested to know how to get them to take this step when they truly believe they are not mentally ill, rather it is the rest of the world that believes they are

Reply
    Barbara Decker says April 13, 2021

    Hi Chaya, There is no “sure” way to make any person take a step. There are strategies that make it much more likely. Please take a listen to my workshop – you’ll hear some of how to do this and hear actual moms in a coaching meeting working their way through some of these challenges.

    Reply
Lynn Gray says April 11, 2021

My son passed from a fentanyl overdose 16 mo ago. From my experience, mental health evaluation must me done. Don’t wait. The hard part, finding proper treatment. There are run of the mill and there are top notch. We did both. Most importantly don’t stop loving your child because of addiction. They need you now more than ever.

Reply
    Barbara Decker says April 13, 2021

    Oh Lynn, I’m so very sorry for your loss. I agree that it it is most important to not stop loving because of the addiction. That is a disease, like any others. Where many of us get stuck is in how to love and support our child and not enable the disease to grow stronger. And, I agree that if the person is open to mental health evaluation, it must be done. The trouble in my own life and with many of the moms I work with is that the “child” is not open to considering that they have a mental illness and, even when they are, not willing to follow the advice of the professionals. And when addiction is co-occurring, that is almost always the case.

    Reply
Janice Stuessy says April 11, 2021

I’m at my wits nd . I’ve been dealing with my sons addiction for 18 years . The visions cycle.. the abuse . Rehab . He quit 4 months . Relapsed and more angry and abusive than ever . I love him to my core but I’m so worn out . He has isolated the entire family from me because I’m to blame . No father involvement or assistance in raising my 3 children .

Reply
    Barbara Decker says April 13, 2021

    Janice – I recognize this cycle and am sorry for what you are going through. Have you watched my workshop? If not, I encourage you to do this. There are strategies that help the Mom, when the Mom is ready to try a new approach:)

    Reply
Stephanie says April 7, 2021

I truly enjoy reading your articles. Our son has numerous Mental Health Diagnoses after 5 hospital stays and 3 psychologists. The substance abuse continues so whether there are actual mental health issues will remain unknown until he is ready to choose recovery. Our Family is living in hell trying to decide which is harder?
Hanging on or letting go
Thanks for sharing your wisdom & life experiences
Trying to find pockets of joy each day 🙏🙏🙏

Reply
    Barbara Decker says April 13, 2021

    Good for you Stephanie! And I content that it is possible to hang on in a way that is healthier for you and your child while at the same time letting go again in a healthy way. Make sense? That is what it took me so many years to figure out how to do:)

    Reply
Denise says April 6, 2021

I am so thankful for this information. My daughter has addiction and mental health issues and it has been a long, heartbreaking road. It is still going on and very difficult for me as her Mother. I appreciate the support more than I can say…

Reply
    Barbara Decker says April 6, 2021

    Thank you very much, Denise. It is a marathon, not a sprint for sure and hard to unravel often.

    Reply
YVONNE OLGUIN says April 6, 2021

This was all very helpful.

Reply
    Barbara Decker says April 6, 2021

    Thanks, Yvonne;)

    Reply
Lori Underwood says April 6, 2021

I wanted to see the video and set up a time and it never came across. I would love to watch it

Reply
    Barbara Decker says April 7, 2021

    Hi Lori – I emailed my support team and asked them to connect with you about this via email and sort it out. Barbara

    Reply
Joan Santon says March 24, 2021

Very good informative program. Teaches what a boundary is and how to create effective boundaries and why that is so important. Teaches about the interplay between mental health and substance abuse. Teaches effective communication strategies. Teaches what codependency is and how harmful it is. This program reduces your stress immediately because you start to learn what is happening. Having a framework to understand it and what you can do to begin to improve things. I would highly recommend this program.

Reply
    Barbara Decker says March 25, 2021

    Thank you so much, Joan. You are such an excellent student and such a caring and wise support to other moms. Special lady, you are!

    Reply
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