Supporting a family member who uses drugs can be challenging and isolating. For many, a family member may be the only person in their lives who is aware of their struggle with alcohol or other drugs. The following information is intended to provide some suggestions, considerations, and resources to help family members.

  • Learn about the substance(s) your family member is/are using, and about substance use in general.
  • Seek out information that is non-blaming and non-judgemental.
  • Many organizations that provide services to people who use drugs have knowledgeable staff who may be able to answer your questions, in addition to providing public information and education sessions and programs.

Tip: The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) offers an online tutorial  as an introduction to understanding addiction.

Substance use treatment and support services are not a one-size-fits-all situation – depending on a person’s needs and goals, some services are better suited than others. Respect your family member’s perspective about what services or supports are best for them.

Some common treatment approaches include:

  • Abstinence-based programming, requiring people to not be using while accessing services and to have the goal of abstaining from substance use
  • Harm reduction, which aims to work with people to reduce their use, or to learn strategies to reduce the harm the use is having on their life. Abstinence may be a goal but is not a requirement for service.

Tip: Pushing a person into treatment can strain your relationship and deter them from seeking support. Try finding out what resources are available and share these, providing your family member with the tools to make decisions that work best for them.

Open and non-judgemental communication is an important part of any relationship, and even more so for those trying to support family members who use substances.

  • Ask your family member how you can support them, rather than offering advice or recommending what they should do.
  • Try to understand the role that drug use has in their lives and what else is going on for them.
  •  Provide a safe and supportive space for them to share their experiences and feelings.

Tip: The language you use can have a great impact on your communication with a family member. Instead of using negative terms such as ‘addict’, use language that puts the person ahead of the problem such as ‘people who use substances’ or ‘substance use issue’.  This shows that you know there is more to them than the issues they are facing.

Think about how you can support yourself:

  • Self-care is an essential part of caring for someone else and also models coping strategies to the person(s) you are supporting.
  • Talk to other members in your family or supportive friends or seek individual counselling.
  • Family support programs can connect you with other people experiencing similar situations, to information and resources, and teach you new skills to better support yourself and your family.

Finding the right counsellor or service for you or your family member can be challenging. Some things to look for include:

  • The language used by the service (e.g., person who uses drugs vs. ‘addict’);
  • The rules, requirements or restrictions of the program (e.g., can you or your family attend for support if you or they are actively using; is regular attendance mandatory for ongoing service);
  • Accessibility and a feeling of safety and comfort in the space the services are offered in;
  • Flexibility in the format of services offered (e.g., open/closed group, individual, and/or family counselling); and
  • Opportunity to talk openly about you or your family member’s drug use in a non-judgemental and unrestricted way

Tip: Before you meet with or contact a service think of some questions you would like to ask of them. For example, what is the process for accessing the services?

Tip: METRAC has a Client Rights Guide for interviewing a new therapist, which can help prepare for that first conversation with a new service provider.