When someone suffers with their mental health and substance abuse, it is classed as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg when you think about what comes first. However you see it, there’s no denying that there is a strong link between poor mental health and substance abuse. People tend to use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate when their mental health is suffering, and it’s not uncommon. On the flipside, alcohol and drug use may make underlying mental health illnesses worse:
– 50% of those with a mental illness abuse substances
– 37% of alcohol abusers and 53% of drug abusers have at least one serious mental illness
– Of all people diagnosed as mentally ill, 29% abuse alcohol and/or drugs
My sister’s story
I was 14 years old when I first saw my sister have a breakdown. I remember it like it was yesterday. Mum told me to stay in my room, but it didn’t stop me from hearing the screams. I watched through a gap in my bedroom door as my sister, my older sister who was always there for me, was curled up in the foetal position on the landing, sobbing in between screams. She looked in so much pain. At that time in my life I had been struggling with my mental health for a while, but it would be years before I hit crisis point.
I had no idea I was looking at a future reflection of myself. As I write this now, 14 long years have passed. As I write this now, my sister is still not well, and she’s slowly killing herself with a drug and alcohol addiction. I should be used to seeing her in a bad way. I’ve visited her in psychiatrist hospitals, on the poisons ward, my family and I have spent nights frantically searching for her when she has gone missing and I held her hand tight through it all, until I started to suffer myself.
Battling my own demons
I had no idea back then, but my Bipolar was like a bubbling cauldron and every bit of trauma in my life could have been the ingredient that made it boil over, and it eventually did. I could have easily turned to alcohol and drugs like my sister, and for a while that’s exactly what happened. My life between the ages of 14-17 was one big blur fuelled with parties, sex, alcohol and drugs. I’m not proud of how I handled things then, but there were little resources for people like me and talking about mental health just wasn’t a thing. My mum tried to help and dragged me to many teen counselling sessions, but the focus was always on how I behaved and my ‘attitude’, which was one the reasons I was expelled from school. As good as her intentions were, my mum was struggling dividing her time between me and my four sisters, and each of our issues.
Self-harm and self-destruction
The number of dangerous situations I put myself in back then is a scary thought now as an adult and mum of three children of my own. I could have easily gone on the wrong path and I truly believe I would have if I didn’t have kids. At the age of 17 I found out I was pregnant with my son, and it gave me an opportunity to leave that life behind. Self-sabotage wasn’t an option anymore and I had to be strong for my son. I was never a perfect mum, and I made plenty of mistakes, but every time I felt like giving up my children would be the angels on my shoulder pushing the devil of depression away.
My sister didn’t have that. Even worse, it was the one thing she always wanted but as much as she tried in the years when she was well and married, it never happened. She always told me how lucky I was, and I didn’t see it back then but now I do. I felt resentment at times for being a young mum and ‘missing out’. I didn’t appreciate what I had. I didn’t realise how much having children would change my life but being a mum didn’t just change my life. It saved my life. Without them, there’s no doubt I would have continued on my path of self-destruction.
The stigma is real
Addiction and mental illness as stand-alone issues are complex enough, but the two combined create a living hell for the people dealing with them and their loved ones. I’d do anything to save my sister from that hell, but I can’t. Believe me, I’ve tried. That isn’t to say there’s no hope for her though. I’ve worked in drug services and I’ve seen people recover first-hand but with dual diagnosis there must be an integrated approach to treatment and recovery or the risk of relapse is high. There needs to be more support for people suffering with poor mental health, before things reach crisis point, before they reach for the bottle, or turn to drugs. No doubt it needs to be better, but there is help out there.
Don’t give up hope
It’s easy for people to judge people with mental health and substance misuse issues. I know people judge my sister. I wish they wouldn’t though. The alcohol may have changed the way she looks, and acts, but she is still human. My sister came from a good family. She is still a daughter, sister, aunty and friend. Before the alcohol took over she loved to sing. She was so creative too, she would always be making something and on mine and the kid’s birthdays we would usually have a handmade card. She was so intelligent. She went to University in Leeds and she wanted to be a teacher. I realise that I’m talking about her as if she’s no longer with us, but in a way that’s the truth. The sister I knew, loved and looked up to died a long time ago. When she is ready to live again, I’ll be ready to support her every step of the way. I just pray that day comes before it’s too late.
For Katie x
Help and Support
If you or a loved one is suffering from substance abuse, there is help available. If you are not known to any services then contact your GP who can refer you. To search for help and support in your local area click here.
Below is a list of National Charities to also offer help and support.
National charity providing a range of services to help transform the lives of people affected by drug and alcohol problems – details of local services are available on the website.
Support for family and friends of people with drug and alcohol problems
0800 9177 650
0845 122 8608
User-led organisation that provides information and advocacy for people accessing treatment for drug and alcohol problems.
National Association for Children of Alcoholics
0800 358 3456
Provides information, advice and support for everyone affected by a parent’s drinking, including adults.
0300 999 1212
Talk to Frank
0300 123 6600
For information on drugs and getting help.
National organisation that provides health and social care services for people with complex needs, including alcohol and drug misuse and mental health problems.