How to talk to a family member or friend about their drug or alcohol use

Signs of harmful drug and alcohol use, how to talk to someone about their drug and alcohol use, and how to get help.

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It can be hard to talk to someone you love about their drug or alcohol use but it is important. Substance use, like drugs and alcohol, can have negative effects on someone's life and the lives of those around them. Family and friends are an important support system for someone who is looking for help.

Signs to look for

If you start to notice that a family member or friend is acting differently than before or is having problems in various aspects of their life, they may be struggling with substance use, like drugs or alcohol. Here are some signs you can look for:

Changed personality

  • Isolate themselves from friends and family
  • Extreme changes in their behaviour and mood, like:
    • arguing and fighting more with family and friends, especially when someone comments on their drug or alcohol use
    • being sad, angry or anxious whenever they are not using drugs or alcohol
  • Trouble remembering things or staying alert
  • Trouble with concentration, memory and the ability to think and make decisions
  • Take risks to get and use drugs or alcohol
  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed

Change in habits around their drug or alcohol use

  • Using drugs or alcohol first thing in the morning, or while at school or work
  • Using more drugs or alcohol to get the same effect
  • Using more often
  • Using alone
  • Spending more money on drugs or alcohol
  • Turning to drugs or alcohol to deal with their problems
  • Choosing new activities and friends based on using drugs or alcohol
  • Trying new types of drugs, or mixing drugs and alcohol together, to get a more intense effect

Difficulty managing basic parts of their life due to increased drug and alcohol use

  • Getting lower grades at school or lower productivity at work
  • Missing school or work
  • Decreased health
  • Unstable finances
  • Strained or tense relationships
  • Lower self-esteem

How to talk to someone about their drug or alcohol use

Sometimes a person may not realize that their drug or alcohol use has become a problem. Talking to them can help and may be the encouragement they need to seek help.

Starting the conversation can be tough or uncomfortable, but there are ways you can show that you care. Be aware that the conversation might bring out strong emotions and may not go as you expect. That is okay. It will still show your family member or friend that you care.

Here are some tips to help you talk to someone about their drug or alcohol use:

Learn the facts

Choose the time and place with care

  • Don't bring up the subject while the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Make sure you are in a private location where no one can hear

Show concern and be compassionate

  • Tell them you are worried because you care or love them, and want the best for them
  • Explain why you are concerned based on the behaviours you have seen

Listen

  • The goal is to have a two-way conversation
  • There may be underlying reasons why they are using drugs or alcohol, such as mental health problems including depression, or to cope with previous or ongoing trauma or violence
  • Listen for these potential issues and acknowledge their feelings and experiences without probing them
  • It may help inform the type of help you encourage your friend or family member to seek

Don't stigmatize

  • Be mindful of your own tone and biases
  • Avoid being judgmental

Respect where they are in their journey

  • Listen to and respond to the wishes of the person you are talking to
  • Offer support and resources, but ultimately the decision about seeking help is up to them
  • Don't expect a dramatic shift in thinking or behaviour right away
  • Recovery is possible but the path to wellness looks different for everyone

Make a list of the good things in their life

  • Sometimes people can lose sight of the good things they have in their life and their personal strengths
  • Remind them that there are friends, family members, groups, activities and other things that make getting help worthwhile
  • Recognize their strengths and their ability to overcome this

Be patient

  • A conversation about drugs and alcohol is challenging and can make someone feel angry or defensive
  • Don't rush the conversation or feel you need to find a solution right away
  • If you need to come back and have further conversations another day, do so
  • Tell them you are there for them, and that they can talk to you anytime

Your words matter

Be aware of the language you use when talking to someone about drugs or alcohol. If someone feels they are being treated unkindly, or judged, they are less likely to seek help.

  • Use person-first language, for example say 'a person who uses drugs' instead of 'drug user'
  • Use neutral, medically accurate words when describing drug or alcohol use
  • Use language that focuses on health and wellness being possible, but looks different for everyone

Learn more about stigma and why words matter

Get help

Encourage your family member or friend to call, visit or read information online. You can even offer to go with them as support if they are nervous to go alone.

In addition to you being a supportive family member or friend, there are resources in your community that can help.

Learn more

Taking care of yourself

Before you can help someone else, you need to take care of yourself. Helping someone can be mentally, physically and emotionally draining.

Remember that you do not need to take on all of your family member’s or friend’s problems. It is important to protect your mental and emotional wellbeing when dealing with serious issues too.

Be hopeful, don’t give up. Seek help and support.

For more information

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