Addiction and the Family
April is Counseling Awareness Month, and we’re spotlighting addictions and their effects on friends and loved ones
The American Counseling Association (ACA) has designated April as Counseling Awareness Month to promote advocacy for the profession and celebrate the amazing service that counselors provide to provide help for a wide range of the population.
We spoke with Zach Sneed, Ph.D., about the effects of addiction on families and how the pandemic has caused a large number of relapses for many people struggling with addiction. He also discussed strategies for families dealing with an addicted family member.
Sneed is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Science in Addiction Counseling program in the TTUHSC School of Health Professions. Sneed was named “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” by the TTUHSC Student Senate in 2020 and 2021.
How Addiction Affects the Family
It’s understandable that addiction can have a negative impact on the suffering addict, but it can also cause trauma to those around them. “Addiction affects families significantly,” Sneed says. “It will have a different effect depending on which role the person who is experiencing the addiction is in.”
A parent’s addiction will impact family members differently than if it is the child who is struggling with addiction issues. The common denominator is a sense of powerlessness to help and understand why someone would do this to themselves.
“If there’s addiction in the family that isn’t addressed, it will adversely affect the other people who are there,” Sneed warns.
The Pandemic’s Influence on Addiction
Not surprisingly, drug and alcohol use rates have increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, right on the heels of our national conversation regarding the opioid epidemic. However, it is alarming to hear the statistics.
“Before the pandemic, any regular year, we would expect that 15% of Americans were experiencing some difficulties related to addiction,” Sneed says. “Right now the data is showing that 2-3 out of 5 are experiencing difficulties. So, it’s really increased.”
Sneed points to the ease in use of substances that are available for when we feel anxious or upset. People tend to drink or smoke because these substances are actually quite effective in the short-term. And the stress of the pandemic, from isolation, job and economic insecurity, to witnessing so much death, has led to increased use.
The Social Mirror
The isolating impact of the pandemic from social distancing and quarantining has created a loss of what Sneed calls “the social mirror.”
“If it’s just me and I’m drinking by myself, I don’t have a buddy with me to match drinks with,” Sneed explains. “I’ve also lost access to the bartender who knows how much alcohol goes into each drink.” The bartender also serves as a monitor of how much folks are drinking and can tell them when it’s been enough.
“At home, alone, you have no one to pace your drinking with and no one to tell you when to stop,” Sneed says.
Treatment Options for Addiction
“Pre-pandemic, a lot of people wanted help but only 1 out of 10 actually got it,” Sneed says. “We’re concerned that the rates of use and problematic use are going up and it’s still hard to get treatment.”
Sneed advises that when someone is ready to get help with their addiction the first step is to contact a healthcare provider. They will do an assessment to figure out the areas of life that are being severely adversely affected by the substance abuse, then create a plan for recovery.
“Treatment should take an individualized form,” Sneed says. “We always include the person with substance-use concerns as a shared decision maker because it is their life.”
And different strategies are needed for people in different places of life.
The most widely known recovery for substance abuse is a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Sneed believes these are good options for many people, but there are also many who require more help.
“Every door can be the right door,” Sneed says. “We’ll figure out what kind of help is needed.”
And today, with the rise of telehealth and online recovery meetings, there are more avenues for finding help than ever before, and there should be more.
How to Address Addiction with A Loved One
Sneed advises to not think of facing a loved one with an addiction as a confrontation.
“If someone is concerned about a family member, move toward the idea of collaborating and creating caring conversations,” he recommends.
If approached in a confrontational way, the person experiencing difficulties is going to respond with defensiveness and resistance.
“Frame the conversation in the context of care of concern for the person with a substance-use concern and their family,” Sneed says.
And if this approach doesn’t work, there are professionals called interventionists who are available to help guide the conversation.
Furthermore, the age of the person and their role in the family will impact how you approach them about their addiction.
“When the conversation is going from a parent to an adolescent, remember they are trying to become more independent,” he says. “A parent must show respect and care in navigating the conversation.”
Insisting that they “have to go treatment” only works some of the time and only when treatment options are already lined up and ready with precise details. Sneed advises contacting your insurance to locate a specialist if the problem demands it.
Treatment Works; Recovery is Possible
Sneed shares that treatment works and recovery is possible, which can help to repair the family.
“It’s so important for families that something is done to help no matter what role the person is in,” he says.
The last thing a parent would want to admit is that they are hurting their children or their partner in any way.
“We don’t like the topic and we don’t like to admit we’re doing something wrong as a parent,” Sneed says. “The main thing is to talk about it and share information.”
Sneed is working for a world where addiction can be in the spotlight and destigmatized so that people are less afraid to seek help.
“If we can reach a small number of people, it’s worth it,” he says.
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