While there are many causes for drug and alcohol abuse, it is widely believed that people with mental disorders such as schizophrenia are more likely to become addicted to substances than others. Because behavioral changes in people who suffer from schizophrenia can be similar to those affected by drugs or alcohol, it can be tricky to determine the best way to help a loved one. However, if you suspect that someone you care about is suffering from substance abuse that was caused by schizophrenia, there are some steps you can take to determine the best ways to help them.

Because drugs and alcohol can make symptoms of schizophrenia worse, it’s important to remember that the sufferer may feel increased paranoia or anxiety, so addressing the issue needs to be handled delicately.

Recognizing the signs

Sometimes schizophrenia sufferers find it difficult to communicate, which can make their thought and speech patterns disorganized or slurred. You may also notice that they isolate themselves from family and friends or are unable to control their emotions; conversely, they may have trouble showing emotion at all. When left untreated, schizophrenia can lead to drug and alcohol abuse simply because the sufferer wants relief from these symptoms.

Some who suffer with the disorder also suffer from depression, and when substances are introduced the combination can be lethal. Schizophrenic patients who self-medicate with drugs or alcohol are more at risk for suicide than the general population, so it is important to be able to recognize warning signs for self-harm. If your loved one uses phrases like “There’s no way out” or “Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here,” there’s a chance they are having suicidal thoughts. It can be extremely helpful just to listen to what they need to say, without judgement or shame, and let them know they are not alone. If suicide seems imminent, call for help immediately and remove any items from the area that could be used for self-harm if possible.

Help and recovery

The first step in helping a loved one with schizophrenia and substance abuse issues is to help them assess their needs. Having an evaluation done by a doctor should be first on the list; never try to diagnose the problem yourself or help the sufferer self-medicate.

Once a disorder has been established, it’s important for the sufferer to know that they are not alone and that nothing is hopeless. Fear of being shunned or made to feel “less than” by peers and family members can keep schizophrenia patients from reaching out for the help they need.

A combination of therapy and carefully monitored medication can be highly effective in treating schizophrenia, but every sufferer is different and will have varying needs. When drugs and alcohol are a factor, your loved one will be at risk for relapse, so recovery steps are crucial. Art therapy, in which a person who is in recovery or dealing with a mental or emotional disability uses art, music, or dance to help come to terms with their situation, can be very helpful for patients who need help in expressing themselves.

It can be difficult to approach a loved one about these issues initially, but often just having someone express concern about their well-being is helpful to someone who is suffering from a schizophrenia disorder. Knowing how to assess the risks and warning signs can mean all the difference when it comes to helping someone you care about.

Jennifer McGregor is the co-creator of PublicHealthLibrary.org, which was made for one of her pre-med classes as a project. With the site, she intends to provide various resources pertaining to medical inquiries and general health. When Jennifer is not busy being a student, she enjoys walking her dog through the park.