Here's how to talk to a loved one about addiction and substance use

Mar 11 2019, 6:08 pm

Addiction and substance use-related challenges can affect anyone. Every day, four people die from an overdose in B.C., and it’s something we need to recognize as a serious public health problem.

Addiction affects people from all walks of life; whether it’s a coworker, a family member, or a friend. Often, people living with addiction suffer in silence due to the shame and blame associated with substance use.

The solution is far more complicated than “just stop doing drugs,” as many people who suffer from years of deeply rooted physical and emotional pain use substances to cope with trauma. It’s rarely just one thing, but a combination of issues that can lead to addiction.

It’s time to start having open, honest, judgement-free conversations about addiction and substance use. Starting this kind of conversation may not be easy, but opening the door can help make it easier for a loved one to reach out for help when they are ready. It is a crucial first step that you can take together.

Here’s how to start the conversation.



Timing and place

Make sure you are both free of distraction and are not feeling tired or rushed. Avoid starting the conversation if you are upset, angry, or otherwise in an emotional or fatigued place.

Choose a location that feels comfortable for the person and make sure your phone is switched off so you will not be interrupted. Some people may also find it easier to engage in conversation when they are moving, in which case it may help to go for a walk to talk things over.

Be informed

Educate yourself so you are able to answer any questions — if you don’t know the answers, offer to look for them together. Learn about the common substances used, as well as important harm reduction services such as naxolone, supervised consumption sites, overdose prevention sites, and drug-testing services. It’s important to avoid preaching and exaggeration, as this may lead to a loss of trust.

Words and language matters

The type of language you use to describe people who use substances and the conditions associated with addiction can either play a supportive role in overdose prevention or lead to guilt and isolation among people who use drugs. It’s important to emphasize that people are more than their addiction or substance use.

Negative language may make people feel alone and more likely to use drugs alone which will make them less likely to access lifesaving programs and services. Using people-first, judgement-free language can help save lives.

Keep calm and focused

It’s very important to keep your voice calm and avoid an accusatory tone which may isolate the person even more. If you feel that you may have a negative reaction to the conversation, delay it until you feel ready.

Focus on letting the person know you care about them, and have ongoing conversations. Don’t give up. The most important thing is to continue to share that you care about the person, and to treat them with compassion and respect.


Remember that the conversation is not about you. Be a good listener, listen without judgement or blame, and give the person room to take part and ask questions, and respect their opinions. Be prepared to meet the person you’re talking to where they’re at and work together to understand the risk of using drugs.


This information is not intended to take the place of professional medical care. 

If you or someone you know needs substance use support, contact your family doctor or dial 811, a free telephone resource that provides 24/7 non-emergency advice and support.

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