How to Help those with Mental Illness or Substance Abuse

by Al Barton, Licensed Professional Counselor at MCCFL

Do you care about someone with a mental illness or substance abuse problem? You are not alone. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one out of five Americans have a mental health condition. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) estimates almost one in 10 Americans have a substance use disorder. Many loved ones may have both a substance use problem and a mental health concern at the same time. It can be frustrating when you see the loved one’s problems clearly while they do not. There are treatments and supports in our community to help.

Start by educating yourself and other loved ones. One of the best concise books is Xavier Amador’s 2010 book, “I’m Not Sick. I Don’t Need Help.” This book explains four steps required to create a good tie between you and your loved one.

Listen without judgment to what your loved one feels, wants and believes in. Try to understand how your loved one sees themselves and explore with them their beliefs as to whether or not they feel they are ill.

Remain empathic. Empathize with your loved one’s feelings, especially their frustrations, fears, discomforts and desires.

Validate your loved one’s experience. Try to discuss only perceived problems and symptoms. Agree to review with them the perceived advantages and disadvantages of treatment. And of course, agree to disagree.

Form a partnership; work together as partners against the effects of the illness.

Sometimes helping someone means simply not making things worse. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests you avoid:

Get involved with the local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness. There are educated and compassionate supports from others going through or who have gone through similar experiences. The group meets the fourth Saturday of each month at 10 a.m. at the Hood River Library and the first Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. at the One Community Health.

Research shows that there are effective treatments for both mental health problems and substance use disorders. Access treatment locally at Mid-Columbia Center for Living (MCCFL), The Next-Door or Providence Gorge Counseling. Local medical providers such as One Community Health and Columbia Gorge Family Medicine also have behavioral health specialists embedded in their clinics. Additionally there are a variety of individuals in private practice who provide caring and compassionate treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems. A list of professionals is printed periodically in this newspaper or see

However, when a loved one is in acute psychiatric distress, experiencing psychosis or feelings — suicidal for instance, getting him or her in contact with MCCFL Crisis team or to a hospital is the wisest and best choice. The crisis team is mobile (they will meet you in the community) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 541-386-2620 and press number 5 to speak to a crisis worker (

For many people, recovery does not mean a complete cure of their problems. Recognize that even small steps and improvements can make a difference in someone’s well-being. The combination of compassion and support and effective treatment can help your loved one.

Al Barton is a licensed professional counselor and deputy director at Mid-Columbia Center for Living.