Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that occurs after a person experiences a frightening and dangerous event, such as an accident or natural disaster, physical or sexual abuse or the sudden harm or loss of a loved one. PTSD is frequently found with members of our armed forces and Veterans who have been on active duty. It is not uncommon for those with PTSD to use substances in order to deal with their problems by smoking, drinking and using both legal and illegal substances. Eventually, the use and misuse of drugs and alcohol can lead to substance use disorders (SUDs). When a person has both PTSD and a SUD it is known as a co-occurring disorder. The good news is that there are effective treatment modalities available to help those with both PTSD and SUD.
If you have a family member or friend with PTSD and a SUD, there are some things that you can do to help.
- be aware
- look for changes in behaviors
- share referrals
- encourage avoidance of all harmful and non-prescribed substances
- ignore threats
- ignore what you are seeing and trust your own instincts
- be afraid to reach out for support
- tell a person with PTSD that all medications are harmful
One of the primary symptoms of PTSD involves nightmares and flashbacks. Those with PTSD will use substances in order to help them to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you see this pattern, talk to your loved one about the behavior and encourage them to reach out to their own clinician or counselor for help. Using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate like this is never a good idea.
Those with a SUD and PTSD engage in behaviors that put them and others in danger. Be mindful if your loved one is drinking before he drives. Are his personal obligations falling to the side because he is using? Is he missing days from work and school due to substance use or due to feeling hung over? Are there any new legal issues present that were not an issue before? All of these are signs that the substance use is out of control.
Admitting that there is a problem is very difficult and the person with PTSD may truly feel that she is getting some relief from using drugs and alcohol. Encourage them to talk to their doctors. Offer to go accompany them to a treatment center.
While it can be argued that using substances will effectively numb the negative feelings and may even stop the intrusive thoughts temporarily, in the long run, drug and alcohol use will not help anyone with PTSD. Substance use can interfere with treatment and can even make symptoms worse like increasing anger, sadness, depression and social isolation.
Don’t ignore threats of self-harm or harm to others, especially when an individual is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If you feel that your loved one is a danger to himself or others, get yourself to a safe place and call 911.
Those with PTSD suffer on a daily basis and the use of drugs and alcohol can numb the awful feelings. This is not a healthy or effective coping mechanism or treatment option. Don’t think that just because the individual with PTSD says that a drink is making them feel better, that it is the best way to go. If you think that something is wrong, speak up.
Be sure to know where you can turn for help. There are numerous resources available to help you and your loved one. You can begin by contacting your general practitioner or family doctor for referrals. You can also contact your local community mental health center. Private psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers can be of assistance to someone with PTSD, as can your own clergy. You can also contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as many employers offer mental health assistance to employees.
While self-medication can be quite harmful, some individuals with PTSD are prescribed anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants to address their symptoms. If a doctor has assessed the individual and concluded that psychopharmacological treatment is necessary, then the individual should be following the doctor’s orders. You can be watchful that your loved one is being compliant with medication and not drinking while taking their prescribed medications as well. The combination of alcohol and medication can be extremely dangerous.
Co-occurring disorders like PTSD and SUD are quite common. You can best help your loved one by being cognizant of their behaviors and ensuring that if they are using drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms, they need to get help. The great news is that help is available and treatment is effective.