I’m caring for someone with substance use disorder

Addiction or substance use disorder is when a person’s body gets so used to drugs and/or alcohol that they can no longer function without it in their system. Because their body builds up tolerance over time, they’ll need more and more of the substance to feel the effects. They may become fixated with using and obtaining the substance to the point that they’ll skip out on their responsibilities. Often, substance use disorders co-occur with other mental health problems and serious mental illnesses.

When a family member is using substances in a harmful or risky way, it can put an incredible strain on the whole family.

The most important thing for you to accept is that it’s not up to you to fix them.

You can try to help and encourage your family member to make changes but you can’t do it for them. Change can only happen when they want to change, feel able to change and develop a plan to change. 

How you can help:

  • Talk to your care recipient about your concerns. Tell them what their addiction has been like for you. Be honest about your feelings and about what you would like to happen next.
  • Don’t blame, criticize or humiliate. Simply say what it has been like for you.
  • Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to express your concerns. For example, you could say “I think it would be helpful for you to talk to someone”, vs. “You need to get help”.
  • Take a collaborative approach to problem solving instead of a confrontational one. Let them know that you’re going to support them on their journey to recovery.
  • Encourage your family member to share their feelings and reflections about their situation.
  • Express empathy – try to understand and acknowledge the person’s point of view without anger or judgement.
  • Steer the conversation toward possibility and action.
  • Encourage them to seek help; this may include finding treatment resources for them.
  • Offer to make an appointment for them and go with them to the appointment.

Take care of yourself

In order to have the energy to be there for someone else, you need to look after your own emotional and physical well-being. Make sure your own needs are met by getting enough sleep, exercising and eating well.

It’s also important to get the support you need to cope with a family member who has an addiction. There are therapists who specialize in addiction counseling for family members and there are also specialized support groups, such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon.

Get help:

  • Connect with a support group to learn more about addiction and the emotional and psychological toll it is taking on you. Al-Anon is a support group for family members of someone who has an alcohol addiction. Nar-Anon is a support group for family members of someone who has a substance use disorder
  • Reach out to Connex Ontario –for free health services information for people experiencing problems with alcohol, drugs or mental health issues at connexontario.ca or call1-866-531-2600
  • Share your experiences and concerns with other caregivers in our online support group
  • See also caring for someone with a mental illness

Additional resources

The National Safer Supply Community of Practice (NSS-CoP) is a new knowledge exchange initiative led by London InterCommunity Health Centre, in partnership with the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs and the Alliance for Healthier Communities. Its goal is to scale up safer supply programs across Canada. To learn more about the CoP or to join, please visit their website.

Urgent Public Health Need Site (UPHNS) – The Community of Practice Hub is a one-stop-space where frontline service providers, people with living and lived expertise, health care professionals, and policymakers can learn from each other about establishing and operating services in emergency shelters where people may need to use drugs and/or where overdose prevention approaches are necessary. To learn more, please visit their website.

Canadian Substance Use Resource and Knowledge Exchange Centre (SURE) provides a curated series of tools and resources geared towards supporting people in implementing a public health approach to substance use in their community. To learn more about their resources, please visit their website.

CATIE strengthens Canada’s response to HIV and hepatitis C by bridging research and practice. They connect healthcare and community-based service providers with the latest science and promote good practices for prevention and treatment programs. They also offer resources and information on harm reduction.

Ontario Harm Reduction Network supports harm reduction efforts in Ontario by providing training, networking opportunities, and consultations to service providers and agencies. We bring together harm reduction workers from across the province through The Outreach Network. To learn more about their services and resources, please call toll-free 1-855-591-0347 or email info@ohrn.org.

Not sure where to start? Call our 24/7 helpline or talk to us in our live chat to find resources in your community.





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