Social workers and other professionals are in the unique position to observe and identify substance abuse disorders as they emerge in patients. You can be the front line of addiction diagnosis, and so you must remain vigilant for the often subtle and nuanced signs of a patient’s developing addiction.
A well-educated professional is best prepared to think critically about any observations and may perceive patterns that others have missed. Friends and family members may have an idea that something is going on with their loved one, but due to a lack of knowledge or experience, they may overlook critical symptoms that point towards the root problem – a substance abuse disorder.
Physical Warning Signs of Substance Abuse Disorders:
- Degrading personal hygiene and appearance upkeep
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Sudden mood swings, irritability or lashing out
- Increased paranoia and anxiety about seemingly benign things
- Dramatic weight loss or weight gain
- Slurred speech, poor coordination, “the shakes”
In addition to these common physical symptoms, your patient may present some of the following more subtle symptoms in their lifestyle. It is important to keep an open dialogue between you and your patients. The more you know about their environments and lifestyles, the better prepared you are to identify and diagnose hidden substance abuse disorders.
Sudden Financial Problems
A drug addiction is an expensive habit to maintain, as is stopping by a bar or liquor store multiple times a week. A patient with a substance abuse disorder will quickly run out of available funds and often begin selling their valuables in order to maintain their addiction.
If your patient is engaging in impulsive financial behaviors or has entered a sudden period of serious financial struggle, this can be an indication that an addiction is progressing to a more severe state. Drug or alcohol addictions can develop very slowly over time, and unfortunately surrounding friends and family members often do not realize there is an issue until it is severe.
Change In Social Situations
Substance abuse disorders are likely to take a toll on a person’s interpersonal relationships, so keep an eye on how the person is interacting with family and intimate friends. When an addiction is getting out of control, patients will often cut themselves off from previously important people.
You may consider reaching out to family members to ask if they have observed any warning signs of addiction. This can provide invaluable information, as family often observes your client while within his or her comfort zone. In front of family and close friends, your clients are more likely to let their guard down and betray warning signs of a growing addiction.
Patients with substance abuse disorders often progress to the point where even the basic maintenance of their daily life begins to degrade. Your patients may neglect their jobs, maybe calling in sick often or going as far as to quit suddenly or perhaps make a dramatic career change. Everything becomes centered around propagating the addiction in any and every way possible.
Determine if your patient is maintaining a stable, consistent lifestyle. If you hear complaints about bills or increased pressures at work, do some investigating. It may be that maintaining a facade of prosperity and normal life is difficult to do while simultaneously feeding a growing substance abuse disorder.
Emergence Of A Mental Illness
A substance abuse disorder’s symptoms can hide under mental illnesses, because the two can be intimately linked. It is estimated that 8% of adults suffered from a serious mental disorder last year. Of those, 4 million were living with a concurrent disorder of addiction and mental illness.
Because mental health issues can so often lead to addiction, it is crucial to monitor patients who have presented with a mental illness for signs of substance abuse disorders. The urge to self-medicate through drugs and alcohol provides a tempting but short-lived solution. Patients will often show signs of both disorders at the same time, but it takes an observant and dedicated professional to discern the root causes of various symptoms