Supporting a loved one

Alcohol and drug use in Australia is common. Many Australians drink alcohol to celebrate, commiserate or as part of social events. Some people will also try illicit drugs such as cannabis. Drug use can be experimental, recreational or dependent. Some people use drugs once, or infrequently, or regularly. The majority of these people will not develop a dependence on drugs.

Discussing alcohol and drugs with family members and friends is an opportunity to learn more about different types of drugs and their individual and social impact. It’s also an opportunity to talk through potential risks associated with drug use and ways to minimise harm from drugs, and to establish attitudes and boundaries regarding drug use.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation recommends that parents begin to discuss alcohol and drugs with children aged eight years and older, in an age- and developmentally-appropriate manner. Establishing an environment in which young people feel confident to discuss alcohol and drugs with their parents or carers is an important protective factor against substance use.

What is drug dependence?

Drug dependence can be defined by continuing to use a substance despite the consequences, being unable to stop using a substance or neglecting social or work obligations because of substance use. Dependence is not necessarily defined by how often someone uses drugs, the type of drug they are using, or the amount they use, but the extent to which drug use is impacting an individual’s life and relationships with others.

Drug use can be harmful but does not automatically lead to a dependence. Risks associated with drug use can include mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, infertility or impotence, liver, heart or kidney damage, and risk of injury or overdose. In some instances, regular drug use can lead to dependence.

How can I tell if someone is using drugs?

A person who is using drugs may not display any signs of use. Possible indications of drug use may include altered mood or behaviour, changes to appetite, energy levels or libido, or issues managing work, finances or relationships. However, these behaviours are not necessarily indications of drug use. Your loved one may be stressed, experiencing problems with school or work, or having difficulties sleeping. Teenagers in particular are likely to display some of these behaviours, as a result of the changes they experience during adolescence.

If you are concerned about a loved one’s drug use or have reason to believe that a friend or family member is using drugs, it is important to reach out to a professional and get some advice on how to approach the issue with your loved one. Where appropriate, try to maintain open communication with your loved one. When discussing your concerns, be honest, avoid judgement or accusations, and provide them with support if needed.

How you can help

The extent to which drug use might be considered a problem varies depending on the context. Many experts agree that a drug problem is not measured by how much, how many, or what types of drugs someone is using. It’s better measured by how that use is affecting their life, and the lives of those around them.

Maintaining trust and open dialogue is crucial to discussing drug use with loved ones. It is important that you do not breach privacy by searching their physical spaces for evidence of drug use or attempt to find evidence of drug use through their social media accounts, email or other communication, or their financial records. This may create an environment of mistrust and suspicion and undermine attempts to establish honest communication.

Everyone’s experience with alcohol and other drugs is different. What may work for one family dealing with alcohol- or drug-related issues may not be helpful for others. For information specific to your circumstances, it is important to consult a professional for advice. Listed below are some general tips on discussing alcohol and drug use with a loved one that may be helpful.

Try to avoid judgement, accusatory statements or catastrophising the situation. Avoid confronting or sensationalist language.

Actively listen to the thoughts, feelings and opinions expressed by your loved one. Ask calm and respectful questions. Understand that people’s experiences with drugs can be complex or mixed, and that your loved one may not wish to discontinue their use of alcohol or drugs.

Not everyone who has used or is currently using drugs wants or needs help. While you may disagree with someone’s drug use, it is important to recognise that someone committing to attend rehabilitation (rehab) or abstain from alcohol or other drugs are not the only possible resolutions to discussing drug use with your loved ones.

It is important to communicate your boundaries regarding drug use clearly, particularly with your children or people living in your home. Establishing clear boundaries with loved ones who are using drugs may help to promote accountability and respect, help people to co-exist, maintain healthy relationships and manage conflict.

Determine your own boundaries, establish them clearly with loved ones and try to be consistent with implementation. This may include establishing boundaries regarding drug possession or use in the family home.

Establishing boundaries includes deciding whether you want to give or lend your loved one money.

Drug dependence is a health issue and should be treated accordingly. There are many treatment and support services available for people who wish to seek help.

These services include counselling, detox/withdrawal, pharmacotherapy, rehabilitation and peer support.

Treatment and support should be tailored to the individual’s specific needs and goals. Different treatments can work for different people.

If you are concerned that someone is experiencing an overdose, alcohol poisoning or having an adverse reaction to drugs or alcohol, or is threatening to harm themselves or someone else, contact Emergency Services by dialling Triple Zero (000). Paramedics and ambulance services do not need to notify the police as a condition of providing help.

Getting help for you and your family

If you feel that a loved one’s drug use is impacting your life and relationships, consider seeking professional help through a psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor or your local General Practitioner. Peer support groups can also be helpful for people to discuss complex issues surrounding drug use. Develop effective strategies to manage any stress or emotional responses you may feel. It is important that family and friends maintain independent interests and relationships while supporting a loved one who is experiencing issues with alcohol or other drugs.

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Dealing with a bad drug reaction

While the majority of people who have issues related to alcohol and other drugs (AOD) will never become aggressive, some do.

Treatment

Deciding to seek treatment for alcohol and other drugs is a big step, and it can feel overwhelming for someone who already has a lot happening in their life.

Withdrawal

Withdrawal is also known as detoxification or detox. It’s when you cut out, or cut back, on using alcohol or other drugs.

Relapse

A relapse (or multiple) is one part of the recovery process from alcohol and other drug dependence.