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Encouraging a Loved One to Seek Treatment

Talking to a loved one about addiction can be awkward, challenging, or even scary.

You may worry that you’re overstepping your bounds, or that bringing it up could make the problem worse or hurt your relationship. But if someone you care about is showing signs of substance abuse, it’s important to face it right away. Starting a conversation could be the turning point that spurs your loved one to get help.

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How to talk to someone about substance use

Before talking to loved ones about your concerns, understand that they may not be ready to hear what you have to say; they might deny that there is an issue; they might find it difficult to accept your help. The best thing you can do in these situations is listen — asking guiding questions to keep the conversation going when necessary, but also really allowing your loved ones to talk about what’s going on in their lives. Opening up the channels of communication may help your loved ones feel less alone and start working toward acknowledging that they have a problem.

Here are some ways you can gently start a conversation with someone you’re concerned about, focusing on your own observations:

  • I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately.
  • I’ve noticed you’ve been acting differently lately, and I’m wondering how you’re doing.
  • I’ve been worried about you lately.
  • I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking a lot lately, and I’m wondering how you’re doing.
  • I’ve noticed you’ve been using [insert drug name], and I’m worried about you.

Once you’ve started the conversation, you can begin to ask questions such as these:

  • When did you first start feeling like this?
  • Do you feel like you’re trying to escape or forget something?
  • Do you feel like your drug use/drinking is a problem?
  • Do you think you could go 24 hours without using drugs/drinking? A week?
  • What can I do to best support you right now?
  • Have you thought about getting help?

Remember, you’re there to provide support, not to fix the situation or dominate the conversation. It’s important to listen and respond, when appropriate, with encouraging words, such as:

  • I want you to know that you are not alone — even if that’s how it feels to you.
  • I am here for you, and I want to help you in any way that I can.
  • It may not seem like it right now, but you can be in control of your life again.  
  • I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I love you and want to help.

The best thing you can do in these situations is listen — asking guiding questions to keep the conversation going when necessary, but also really allowing your loved ones to talk about what’s going on in their lives.

How to help a loved one with addiction:

  • Seek professional help. Contact a local addiction or mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, or meet with your family doctor. Your doctor may have experience treating people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol or be able to refer patients to someone who does. There are physicians and programs that specialize in the treatment of substance use disorders. Even an initial evaluation is a big step.
  • Get local support. Visit Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to find local support for drug and alcohol addiction. These groups provide a network of encouragement and solidarity for those who are working to overcome their addictions.  
  • Follow up on treatment. If a therapist or counselor recommends a change in your loved one’s treatment, social habits, exercise routine, or other activities to help cope with their addiction, be sure to support your loved one in making this change. Be aware that everyone is different and that it typically takes time and patience to find the “right fit” when it comes to treatment.
  • Be encouraging. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol may think they’ll never recover or that they’re unworthy of help, so they need someone in their lives who can constantly remind them that things can and will get better.

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What NOT to do when talking to loved ones about their issues with drinking or drug use 

Don’t:

  • Threaten. No matter how frustrated you are, don’t make claims to try to “scare someone straight.” Telling loved ones that you’re going to kick them out of the house or take away their children if they don’t stop using drugs or alcohol will only push them further away and could even lead them to make a negative, rash decision.
  • Force. You can’t make those with an addiction stop drinking or taking drugs, but you can provide the support and encouragement necessary to help them consider going to rehab or getting treatment.
  • Lecture. Giving a speech about drinking in moderation, or supporting the perception that doing drugs is selfish, won’t help you get through to someone who is in serious emotional pain. Lecturing can make your loved ones feel as if they’re a burden and reaffirm other negative thoughts.
  • Use harsh words. Avoid using terms like “alcoholic,” “drug addict,” “junkie,” and even “alcoholism.” It's not your responsibility to classify a loved one’s level of addiction. Leave that to the professionals. Instead of labeling your loved one, focus on describing the challenge with words like “problem with alcohol” or “trouble with drug use.”
  • Guilt-trip. Avoid making statements that place blame on the person you’re concerned about, such as: “You’re ruining your life,” “Your drinking hurts me,” or “Think about your family.” These kinds of comments minimize the feelings your loved ones just shared with you and can make them feel that you don’t care.
  • Make excuses. Justifying harmful behavior through comments like “Oh, you’re just stressed right now” or “I’m sure you could stop if you wanted to” can interfere with your loved one’s recovery process, which starts with acknowledging there is a problem.
  • Talk with someone under the influence. Don't try to reason with those who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs (including, heroin, meth, crack, cocaine, club drugs, pills, and even marijuana). They're not in a clear frame of mind, cannot understand you fully, and may react in a more negative way than they would if they were sober.
  • Participate. Never aid your loved ones in consuming the substance to which they’re addicted. It sends a message that there isn’t a problem and that you’re OK with their substance use.
  • Feel unloved. Addiction can be difficult to overcome, and it’s impossible to know whether your loved one will run into obstacles along the way. Setbacks or even a relapse are not a reflection on the strength of your personal relationship, and they do not mean that your loved one doesn’t care about you or want to recover.
  • Blame yourself. You can’t cure someone else’s addiction. Even if you could, it isn’t your responsibility — your loved ones must make a personal commitment to recovery. The best thing you can do is support them on their journey.