Witnessing Addictions and Mental Illness Can Be Traumatic

Gillian May

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This is a topic that is definitely not talked about enough. As a nurse, a recovering alcoholic, a person who’s experienced severe depression, and a family member of people with severe mental illness, I have a unique perspective on this issue. So it has to be said — addiction and mental illness can be very traumatic for family members to witness.

Although this is not new — it is new that we can voice this and talk more freely about it. In 2017, approximately 10.7% of people worldwide suffered from some kind of mental health issue. However, a recent study shows this number has become worse since the pandemic started. Over 59% of study participants say that COVID has impacted their mental health negatively.

As for addictions, one report estimates that 1 in 12 Americans suffer from substance use or addiction issues, which has increased since the start of the pandemic. Also, it’s important to note that addiction and mental health issues are often seen together and often make each other worse, which is why I include them both.

Considering the high prevalence of addictions and mental health disorders, it’s safe to say that many family members and friends are witnessing loved ones cope with these issues. Along with that, caregiver burnout may also rise as more people develop addictions and mental health issues.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons we have so much stigma around mental health and addiction issues is how they often impact people close to sufferers. In one study, caregiving for people with serious health issues is shown to cause mental health issues in the caregiver. Furthermore, the severity of mental health issues was shown to match the severity and unpredictability of the illness.

Unfortunately, addictions and mental health issues can be highly unpredictable in their presentation and lack proper treatments. Also, these disorders can create behaviors and perceptions that are distressing for both the sufferer and the caregiver. The stigma surrounding the ‘behaviors’ of those with mental health and addiction issues is real and should not be confused with the genuine distress these issues can cause. However, the distress faced by caregivers may also contribute to the growing stigma if caregiver stress isn’t addressed effectively.

I know from first-hand experience how horrible it is to suffer from addiction and mental illness. However, watching someone else suffer from these conditions can be just as distressing.

I have spent time whirling around in the pits of depression and alcoholism. At my worst, my self-esteem and sense of agency were obliterated. I felt hollow and couldn’t make proper decisions for myself sometimes. My loved ones experienced severe stress watching me having such a hard time coping.

As a child, I watched my brother cope with serious mental illness. I also watched my father struggle with depression and alcoholism until he lost his life from cirrhosis in 2016. Undoubtedly, the trauma of witnessing my father and brother’s issues also contributed to my own. And in fact, research shows that family members of those who suffer from mental health and addictions are likely to develop these issues themselves.

We also know that trauma is a huge part of developing addictions and mental health issues. Unfortunately, witnessing other people suffering from illness can also cause trauma. If the witnessing is severe and prolonged, it can lead to complex PTSD that requires treatment for the caregiver.

Caregiver burnout can cause physical and emotional health problems. It’s important to realize that witnessing addictions and mental health issues can be distressing. It’s more distressing than witnessing physical health problems because often, there are challenging emotions and perceptions involved. It’s time we draw attention to this to support ourselves as we care for and support others.

The more we talk about this together, the more we can call attention to an important issue. Caregivers, family and friends also need support as they stand alongside their loved one. Many of us don't realize that our stress and burnout may be contributing to our own health issues as well as increasing stigma against addictions and mental health. So let's keep the conversation going.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational.

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