mental illness drug addiction

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

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The CNN Parents chat was called "Mental illness and addiction: What's a parent to do?"

Several parents expressed frustration with the lack of resources available for treating both

CNN  — 

During our CNN Parents Facebook chat Monday, three things became immediately clear: There are so many people who know someone who is mentally ill and addicted, most feel there are not enough resources available to help, and there is power in community.

Engaging in a conversation with people who know firsthand what you are going through not only provides much-needed support, it can lead to solutions.

Case in point: A mother named Tracie Caye of New Hampshire posted about how her daughter has been out of state getting psychiatric treatment related to substance abuse.

“There are virtually no in-state facilities that can provide residential treatment for adolescents with co-occurring mental health and substance problems,” she wrote.

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Another mom said she is also in New Hampshire and has no place to send her son.

Then yet another parent, Sharon Little, mentioned the Phoenix House program in Dublin, New Hampshire, which is where she said she sent her daughter for 5½ months. She also invited Caye to join The Addict’s Mom, a Facebook community that boasts 30,000 members and chapters in every state.

Barbara Theodosiou, who created The Addict’s Mom in 2008 to deal with her sons’ addictions, and Dr. Harold Bursztajn, co-founder of the Harvard Medical School Program in Psychiatry and the Law, fielded questions and comments from the CNN Parents audience.

Bursztajn, a practicing forensic and clinical psychiatrist for over 30 years, remarked about the power of communication and community and how they were “absolutely vital in securing … treatment resources and avoiding demoralization.”

He continued, “Treatment is a marathon not a sprint and planning and community (are) essential.”

Another issue raised by many of the participants was a frustration with how the legal system deals with people who are both mentally ill and addicted.

The issue is a significant one. As we reported recently, 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners and 64% of jail inmates were found to have a recent history or symptoms of a mental health problem, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

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“Why is there not a process that is followed between the addiction, mental health and legal systems to work together for treatment centers for our children?” a woman asked.

Drug courts throughout the country can be “very helpful,” wrote a participant who is also a private therapist. “The defendant must have the right level of legal charge and then we help them with treatment, accountability and oversight.”

Some treatment centers have programs in which mental illness and substance abuse are diagnosed and treated at the same time, wrote someone affiliated with Rosecrance, an addiction treatment center for teens and adults.

“Rosecrance has both inpatient addiction treatment facilities and outpatient mental health facilities, which work together with the courts/legal system to provide care from every angle.”

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Bursztajn, who is also an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said “therapeutic jurisprudence” is an area where the courts and the mental health system need to work together. “Both need to have access (to a) forensic psychiatric evaluation of the dual diagnosis patient during critical periods of transition.”

That painful and heartbreaking balance between supporting a loved one and not enabling their addiction came up as well.

Barb Tucker Hoffman wrote that she is trying “tough love,” but it had been nine months, and she still didn’t seen an improvement. She asked Bursztajn his opinion on whether she should cut her daughter completely out of her life.

“I appreciate your frustration,” Bursztajn replied. “You should not need to ask this question alone. Recovery is often more of a several year than several month process. How to help but not be trapped into enabling and set appropriate limits needs to be explored on a case by case basis in the course of your own supportive therapy. I sometimes help patients with dual diagnosis most by helping their long suffering families.”

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Tucker Hoffman said she would look into getting a new counselor.

Some readers had questions about how to talk to children about the issues of mental health and addiction. “Sooner is always better than later,” wrote Colleen Tibball Molok, who said she started talking to her kids about the addiction in their family as soon as they could understand and have a conversation about it.

“Education is key … learn all you can about mental illness and drug abuse,” wrote Theodosiou, of The Addict’s Mom. “If you become educated, you will have the best chance of helping yourself and your entire family.”

Gaynelle Gosselin said some of the best information she’s learned on this topic comes from the book “Parenting Teens with Love and Logic.”

Scare tactics are not helpful, she says. Her own son said the scare tactics used at school only made him more curious. Sharing factual information about what drugs and alcohol can do to the developing brain and some of the reasons why people use drugs and alcohol can be helpful, she said.

“Also, have a look at what your own substance use may communicate to your children,” she wrote. “They may not listen to what we say, but they sure watch what we do. Do they hear us saying things like, ‘I need a drink,’ before reaching for a glass of wine after a stressful day at work. Even if we are low to moderate drinkers, we need to be mindful of the mixed messages we may be sending to our children.”

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Some readers like Travis, who only wanted to share his first name, wanted to tell their own stories in the hopes of helping other people understand what it’s like to live with both mental illness and substance abuse. Travis calls himself “highly functional,” with a 4.0 GPA in grad school and several successful jobs.

“Even after resolving a lot of my internal issues, the addictive, biochemical/behavioral part of my chemistry has stayed. No change for the better. So, so annoying, obnoxious, disheartening, scary, sad frustrating,” he wrote, saying he has self-medicated with pot over the years.

Marijuana has been the “best alternate solution,” he says, because it doesn’t “propel” him into the “destructiveness” of other drugs and alcohol.

“Today is another day of trying to go stone sober. All the best to all you out there seeking answers. It’s not a simple solution but wanted to provide my insights as someone that has lived with and tried to recover from both for over a decade.”

So many participants wanted to offer encouragement to anyone dealing with a loved one coping with both mental illness and addiction.

Anita Wells wrote that she had no questions at the moment but wanted to give the “highest praise to these relentless parents.”

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She continued, “Parents whom have never stopped, parents whom have lost sleep, spent endless hours searching for answers, endless hours worrying about their loved one. Always wanting to trade places with them … Just to hear someone say, ‘We/I can help you with your loved one who is suffering from addiction and/or mental illness.’

” ‘I can help’ … These three words … ‘I can help.’ ”

If you or a loved one is looking for help and treatment options, we put together a list of resources recommended to us by The Addict’s Mom and Bursztajn.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

National Alliance on Mental Illness

The Addict’s Mom


National Institute on Drug Abuse

Narcotics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous

Dr. Harold Bursztajn Accredited Psychiatry and Medicine

“Ethical and Legal Dimensions of Benzodiazepine Prescription”

“Medical Choices, Medical Chances: How Patients, Families and Physicians Can Cope with Uncertainty”

What do you think is the best way to help people who are mentally ill and addicted? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.