How To Talk To Someone About Their Substance Abuse


Do you know someone you’re close to who’s struggling with alcohol or drug addiction? Perhaps a parent, sibling, child, or even close friend.
If you do then the first thing you may be wondering is if you’re overreacting. Do they really have a substance abuse problem or are you just being judgmental?

Here’s a simple test: if this person has developed new problems, problems which don’t seem to fit their character, you’re not over-reacting.
Here are some things you might have noticed:

• · Poor work performance when they were once doing well at their job.
• · Difficult relationships with family and friends when they were once got along well with everyone.
• · Failing to eat, exercise, or take care of their health when they once took pride in looking after themselves.
In addition, you may be living in a region of the country where substance abuse is so prevalent that it’s now considered normal behavior (1).


Sometimes, too, the substance abuse problem might be in the open, but they have minimized its effect. They may, for example, be wine connoisseurs but appear to be drinking several bottles a week. Although things are obviously not going well for them, they deny that there’s anything wrong with their lives. They may also not have any visible problems, but their rate of drinking is a sure sign of alcoholism. However, even a high-functioning alcoholic is still an alcoholic.

If they get irritated when you bring up the topic or even refuse to discuss it, this is a strong indication of a problem.


Once someone admits to having a substance abuse problem and is willing to get help, the next step is an evaluation process called screening. This is usually done by a health care professional.
If the evaluation shows that the person does have a substance abuse problem, the person may voluntarily agree to cut back and gradually eliminate
their addiction on their own.

This can occur if the intervention happens early. Most people, however, will need to go to a rehab clinic which offers a highly structured, well-monitored environment necessary for recovery.


Rarely does waiting for someone to ask for help work.
They may deny they have a problem even as they go through one crisis after another. They may continue their destructive habit after losing their job, facing public humiliation, getting arrested, or experiencing a medical emergency.
When problems go untreated, they affect the whole family. Their partners may experience headaches and backaches, depression and anxiety while their children’s grades may drop and get into trouble for school behavior problems. These children are also at risk of becoming substance abusers themselves when they grow up.


If the substance abuser is volatile, it can be a painful process getting them to admit that they have a problem and need to get professional help.
Avoidance and living with the issue may appear the easiest way to avoid painful confrontations. Since the problem will continue to get worse, things will also get worse for the whole family.

It’s especially easy to avoid dealing with the issue if you are already overwhelmed with how much you have to do each day (2). However, this is usually a problem that won’t sort itself out.


How do you bring up a discussion with a substance abuser (3)?
Despite your fear that they might do something drastic like make a scene, move out, drop out of school, quit their jobs, continue using secretly, etc, you might be surprised to find that they are glad you noticed. They may have been in their own world battling with their inner demons and not even realized that their erratic behavior was obvious to everyone else.

Discussion Tips

Here are 7 tips on how to talk to someone about their substance abuse problem:
1. Don’t confront them when they are under the influence.
They are not likely to behave in a logical way and may try to defend themselves by dismissing your concerns or finding a way to blame you.

  1. Choose a time to talk.
    Arrange a time when they have time to have an open discussion and when you won’t be interrupted.

  2. Reinforce how much you care.
    Begin the discussion by first reinforcing the fact that you care for them. Avoid a harsh or confrontational tone.

  3. Be prepared to face denial or minimization of the problem.
    Talk about the behaviors you’ve seen, how worried you are about the problem, and your concerns about the future.

  4. Approach the issue as wanting to work through to a solution together.
    You want to invite a conversation rather than make the other person feel cornered, badgered, or lectured.

  5. Avoid getting sidetracked.
    It’s easy to get tricked into speculations, exploration of motives, a discussion of morality, etc. Stay practical.

  6. Don’t expect everything to be resolved during that first discussion.

The person may be so shocked that you know that they aren’t able to articulate their ideas clearly. You may have to give them time to mull things over and you may have to have several discussions before they are open to getting professional help.

Early Identification

People don’t have to hit rock bottom before they are ready to change. The sooner you find a way to get the person to be open about their substance abuse, the faster it will be to get effective help.

Early identification not only helps stop the substance abuse quicker and cheaper, but it also preempts struggles in school, work, relationships, or health. Things will be much harder if they drop out of school, get fired from their job, go through a separation, or develop a serious illness.


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