November 4, 2019

How to help a loved one struggling with substance use issues

Many of us use alcohol and other substances with little to no harm. Sometimes the use of substances becomes more problematic for a variety of reasons, and can lead to a greater risk of harm to ourselves and others. Substance use is considered problematic when it starts to negatively affect our personal and professional relationships, health, and financial security.

Families and friends are often the first ones to help loved ones cope with the challenges of substance use issues. They are the ones who see the signs and live with the consequences of a loved one’s behaviour, and they have an important role in getting them help.

Here are some steps you can take to help your family member or loved one.

Get support and take care of yourself

  • Supporting a loved one with these challenges can be difficult and jarring. You might feel stress, anxiety, or anger. You’re not alone in these struggles. Connect with another family member, friend, or professional support such as a counselor or psychologist to talk about what you’re experiencing can help you find healthy ways to cope.

Learn more about substance use and how/when it becomes problematic

Practice how and what you will say

  • Let the person know that you’re available and that you care. 
  • Start with “I” statements and be open and honest about your concerns without being hurtful or presumptuous. Focus on the behaviours that concern you.
  • Prepare yourself for different responses, including denial and anger. You are not responsible for their response and try not to take it personally. The best thing you can do in the moment is remain calm and provide reassurance that they have your love and support.

Find the right time and place

  • If possible, find a time when your loved one is sober, calm, and not distracted. 
  • An ideal place is one that is quiet, private, and where you will not be interrupted. 
  • It’s also important that you are in an emotional place where you can listen with your full attention.

Offer support and approach with compassion

  • Approach with compassion. Remember that you cannot force someone to accept your help or attend treatment. Try to imagine what it might feel like to be in their situation. Most importantly, be mindful that addiction or substance dependence is often rooted in suffering and emotional difficulties, which you may not be aware of.

Identify next steps and concrete actions

  • Actions speak louder than words. If your loved one promises to stop or cut down on their substance use, help them identify SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). Follow up with them about any goals they set. If they are willing, encourage them to connect with professional support, offer support to help them get there, and take on tasks to free them up to attend.

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