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Network Matters
News and Information for the
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Network

March 2015

Caregiver Stress and Substance Abuse 

Providing around-the-clock care to a loved one in need can be a source of immense emotional strain; such caregiver stress sometimes results in a pattern of substance abuse by the caregiver.

Not only does stress-related substance abuse present a myriad of physical and emotional health problems for your patient — it also prevents this patient from providing proper care to his/her loved one. If you are treating a patient who is a caregiver, it’s important to watch for a possible occurrence of this type of self-medication.

Watching for signs

A regular well visit with a caregiving patient is a good opportunity to gauge the potential for adverse emotional or physical effects of the role, and to check for signs of any worrisome coping behaviors. PCPs may want to ask some casual probing questions hinting at symptoms of caregiver stress or associated harmful reactive activities like abuse of alcohol or other drugs.

These preventive measures can play a vital role in identifying and addressing stress-driven substance abuse before it becomes a full-blown addiction. Oftentimes, a problem of this nature starts out as something as simple as a drink to unwind after a long day of providing care before developing into a more serious dependency. Alcohol abuse could stem from depression or anxiety resulting from the stress of caregiving, or as a way to make up for the diminished opportunity for social interaction. Because caregivers tend to put the needs of their ill or aging loved one ahead of their own, they may internalize stress and turn to alcohol or prescription or psychotropic drugs, to deal with their feelings of helplessness or being overwhelmed.

Coordinating with behavioral health specialists

Patients exhibiting the signs of alcohol or drug abuse or other concerning behaviors triggered by caregiver stress should be referred to a behavioral health clinician for further treatment.

How Optum/UBH can help your patients — For complex clinical situations, Optum/UBH is available to provide consultative assistance. Practitioners can call the Optum/UBH Physicians Consultation Service at 800-292-2922. To refer a patient for behavioral health services and to facilitate the coordination of care, call Optum at 888-777-4742.

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