It is difficult to know when or how to express your concern when someone you love is engaging in substance use. Seeing a loved one make unhealthy or unsafe choices can create feelings of guilt, frustration, shame and sadness. The situation could escalate to a point where it feels hopeless — with no end or pathway to recovery in sight.
If you know someone who is engaging in substance use, it is helpful to learn how you can approach them with compassion and engage in active listening. These tools can help you have a productive conversation to inspire real, meaningful change. Read more about getting help for a spouse, child or friend who may be struggling with a substance use disorder.
Is it Substance Use or a Substance Use Disorder?
Many people begin to experiment with drugs and alcohol during their adolescent and teenage years, but this is not always the case. They may be acting out of curiosity or rebellion, or trying to fit in with a particular group of friends. They may also be struggling to process trauma or complex emotions, and seeking a source of comfort or distraction from their pain.
In the mental health profession, substance use or casual experimentation moves toward a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) when habitual use of drugs or alcohol causes significant impairment, such as:
- Health problems
- Failing to keep up at work, school or at home
Substance Use Disorder is commonly known as a drug or alcohol addiction. However, addiction is a complex condition and not simply a habit your loved one is struggling to overcome, like running late or procrastinating. When a health professional or mental health professional has made a Substance Use Disorder diagnosis, this is indicative of a serious mental health condition which can also co-exist with other mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety or PTSD.
Speak to a mental health professional if you or someone you know has a substance use concern.
CRAFT: A Framework for Friends and Family Members to Approach a Loved One
When it comes to substance use, there is a common narrative that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. This often goes hand-in-hand with “showing them tough love,” or “letting them hit rock bottom.” One of several problems with this approach is that it can create a toxic, unsustainable environment for the affected individual and their family and friends.
Recovery IS possible for those who live with a Substance Use Disorder.
You do not have to wait for a “rock bottom moment” to seek help for your spouse, child or friend. If you know someone who is struggling with substance use, there are resources available to help you guide your loved one to finding hope and building a new life in recovery.
Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) is a proven approach to help folks create positive change when a loved one is engaging in substance use. This framework was created by Dr. Robert J. Meyers and expanded by the team of psychologists at the CMC: Foundation for Change. A mental health professional can help teach you the skills and techniques of CRAFT, and help you practice using the tips identified in the section below.
Tips to Have a Healthy Conversation about Substance Use Treatment
When the time has come to have an intervention with someone who is struggling with substance use, the CRAFT model focuses on using positive, motivational communication skills. This can be a better option than having an emotional confrontation. In several studies, CRAFT has also been more effective in getting the affected individuals into a treatment program.
You can use positive communication to start a conversation about getting help for substance use by incorporating these tips:
1. Avoid lecturing and yelling.
After weeks or months of conflict, you are likely carrying a lot of difficult emotions about your loved one’s substance use: Anger. Exhaustion. Grief.
Your feelings are valid and deserve to be acknowledged. But having an angry, emotional outburst is unlikely to be met with a positive response from your friend or family member. Instead, try to approach them calmly from a place of love. You can combat negative emotions by doing a breathing exercise, or walking away from a conversation before it gets out of hand. If you do this, acknowledge that you will continue the conversation another time.
2. Try to put yourself in their shoes.
When a person has developed a dependency on drugs or alcohol, they are likely using this as a coping mechanism or an “escape” from something they do not know how to fix.
Ask yourself: What challenges or emotional pain could be influencing this person’s substance use?
For example, a teen may be smoking pot and playing video games because they are bored — or perhaps because they are being bullied at school and feeling depressed. Or perhaps your friend is struggling with their parents’ divorce. Or your spouse is battling a chronic health condition.
Getting to the root of the problem is key to the healing process, and a mental health professional can help you ask the tough questions and find the answers.
3. Be an active listener.
Sometimes, when we talk to a close friend or family member, we are only half-listening. Perhaps you are scrolling through Facebook or formulating your next response while they are still talking. This is the difference between “listening” and active listening.
You can be an active listener when someone else is speaking by:
- Moving your discussion to a calm, safe space
- Maintaining eye contact
- Eliminating distractions
- Waiting to respond until the other person has finished speaking
- Pausing for a moment to collect your thoughts before speaking
4. Reward positive actions.
You may have fallen into a pattern where the interactions with your loved one are mostly negative: scolding them for running late, questioning their whereabouts, or yelling when they come home intoxicated. But try to remember the power of kind words. Take notice when they do something good — and be on the lookout for even the smallest actions, like responding to your texts or putting dirty dishes in the sink.
5. Practice self-care.
Parents, spouses and friends of someone who is engaging in substance use are likely to experience burnout and caregiver fatigue. When someone else’s wellbeing is your primary concern, your own health and needs tend to be neglected. Self-care is important for your own wellness and, in turn, for modeling healthy behaviors.
Everyone has a different idea of self-care, but some examples are:
- Setting aside time for a hobby or favorite activity
- Meditating or practicing yoga
- Eating a favorite meal
- Drinking a hot cup of coffee or tea
- Taking a bubble bath
- Going for a walk outside
6. Get professional help.
Substance use can impact our most important relationships, and going down this road can be isolating and lonely. But you do NOT need to travel this path alone.
A mental health professional who specializes in substance use can help you learn communication skills and coping mechanisms to protect your emotional wellness, while you work towards getting your loved one into a treatment program. Reach out to our substance use treatment team to get started today.
Find Compassionate Substance Use Treatment at Places for People
Places for People in St. Louis is a community resource for those who are affected by substance use. Our team of compassionate mental health professionals use a trauma-informed approach to create a safe space that is nonjudgmental and inclusive of all people. We are committed to the people we serve and will accompany our clients on the journey to life in recovery.
If you are without health insurance or might be in need of payment assistance, Places for People offers a variety of payment and coverage options to ensure substance use treatment is available to those who need help. Our team will work with you to help alleviate or eliminate any financial barriers to getting help for your loved one.
Read more about our substance use treatment program in St. Louis. To speak confidentially with a member of our substance use treatment team, please call (314) 615-2119.
This article is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a licensed health care professional. Always seek the advice of a licensed professional for any questions or concerns regarding your physical or mental health, or the health of a loved one.