Children of Alcoholics Awareness Week (COA Awareness Week) ‘breaks the silence that engulfs, and traps kids and teens living with parental addiction and offers the chance for children at risk to become children of promise’. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA), one in four children lives with a family member who has an addiction to drugs and alcohol, translating to over 18 million children per year suffering in silence with the effects of parental alcoholism.
We spoke with Rik Cornell, MSW, ACSW, LICSW, who works as the Vice President of Community Relations / Therapist, at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester or MHCGM. He offered us some insights into the work of MHCGM when it comes to supporting families with a caregiver that struggles with a Substance Use Disorder.
A bit more about MHCGM, as an organization of over sixty years, Rik says, “We believe that mental health is just as important to well-being as physical health. In fact, they intertwine. However, often individuals feel stigma related to mental illness, and this perception can make it hard to take the first step in seeking help. Everyone deserves to feel healthy both in body and mind. MHCGM is committed to helping folks understand their mental illness and getting them on the road to recovery. Our programs and services aim to restore health and improve quality of life”.
Rik further explained that “MHCGM offers a variety of services for individuals with Substance Use Disorders (SUD),” saying that “Everyone is evaluated for substance misuse including children as part of their intake and evaluation.” If it’s a primary diagnosis, the individual will work with a clinician specializing in the treatment of Substance Use Disorders like Alcohol Use Disorder. However, depression and substance misuse both need to be treated. Additionally, MHCGM focuses on the community aspect of recovery. It is critical to refer these individuals to ongoing community support or education groups such as 12 Step Meetings (even virtual ones).
MHCGM has a great deal of experience in treating co-occurring disorders. Rik says, “The most common issues individuals seek treatment for are anxiety and depression. Often, people will resort to other methods to relieve their symptoms in these situations. It is very common for them to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances. Sadly, these usually cause an increase in their symptoms.” He went on to explain, “We still live in a world of stigma’ which can make it difficult for folks to access treatment as soon as they need it .”
MHCGM works with the children of parents and caregivers struggling with a SUD. Sometimes this can manifest itself in behavioral problems or a budding substance use disorder of their own. Some children will not go near substances because parents misused substances. Other children will copy behaviors they witness from parents or caregivers at an early age. We have seen this as young as eleven and twelve years old and sometimes even younger. Children will always learn from a parent and another adults’ behaviors. Children growing up in a home with untreated substance use could experience their own SUD. Rik expressed that “prevention and intervention at an early age are vital to the wellbeing of youth with parents or caregivers struggling with SUD. We need to work with the whole family. These are family problems, not just individual ones.”
Rik also explained that there is hope for the children of parents living in recovery, saying, “if healthy families share their recovery and encourage children to talk about issues,” this can be incredibly beneficial to the children. Additionally, if they suspect their children are having struggles expressing issues, but the adults are uncomfortable talking with them, then parents and caregivers can provide support by ensuring their children secure the help they need. Adults with SUD need to be aware it will impact their children. Sometimes parents alone cannot help their children. However, they can get someone else to talk with them. Preventive exposure is important. Rik says, “planting the seeds of prevention is crucial at a young age.”
Suppose folks in the Greater Manchester region are struggling with Mental Health and Substance Use issues. In that case, they can call the Greater Manchester Mental Health Center at (603) 668-4111 to set up an appointment for an evaluation. If someone is in crisis or needs to be seen immediately, they can call the NH Rapid Response line at (833)710-6477. If They have secured an appointment and develop more issues leaving them unable to wait or their appointment or time becomes too far out, we will secure Interim Care Services at the Center. The Emergency Services Department can work with them until they get to their ongoing treatment. Waiting lists are a struggle for the entire state because COVID has hit our workforce hard, but they will be treated if someone is in crisis.
Rik wanted to be sure to reiterate that as a nation, state, and region, we have seen an “increase in anxiety and depression with COVID, but society has always had anxiety and depression; they are not new but made worse because of the secondary symptoms of COVID. In short, COVID has been propagating existing symptoms. Before the onset of the pandemic, it was noted that 1 in 5 Americans had been in treatment for a mental illness. Given that very few people are not affected by some form of anxiety and or depression due to their severe losses and uncertainty over these past two years, one could easily see that we are really all susceptible to mental illness. Mental illness can be in all of us! It is something that just goes wrong, but it is ok… We can talk about it and together we can work on it. We are all at risk for a mental illness, but there is always HOPE.”
We are grateful to Rik and the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester for chatting with us to mark Children of Alcoholics Awareness Week. If you think someone is struggling do not be afraid to ask them and connect them to help!