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How to Talk to Someone About Their Substance Use

Sometimes, a friend or family member’s drinking or drug use goes beyond fun or healthy and starts impacting their well-being.  This could take the form of the person falling behind in their coursework or other responsibilities, or even situations where their life is in danger.  If you decide that you need to speak with a person you care about regarding their substance use, there are a few things to consider:

Understand Your Own Boundaries Regarding the Person and Their Substance Use

You may decide that you don’t want to be around a person while they are using substances, or that you don’t want to end up having to take care of them once they are incapacitated.  You can’t control what the person will do, but you can control what situations you allow to be present for.  Don’t agree to be a person’s designated driver if you don’t want to be around them when they are drinking at all.

Think About When You Approach the Person  

While the problems with a person’s substance use are most obvious when they are using, they are also not in a place to be able to have a thoughtful conversation.  Wait until the person is sober!

Remember that you’re on the same side.  It can be very easy to slip into blame or accusations.  While understandable, that changes the conversation from working together to address a problem to the person defending themselves.

Focus on the person’s behaviors.  These tend to be difficult conversations, and it can be easy to dismiss interpretations.  Stick to particular events and things that happened.  Relatedly, be ready for the person to downplay any problems.  Substance abuse has a logic all its own, and a person may think that their drinking isn’t a problem because they can meet some arbitrary marker of “okay,” like being able to go to class even if they’d been hospitalized the night before.

Know where you want the conversation to go.  What’s your purpose for this conversation?  Are you expressing alarm for a friend, or do you believe that the person needs to seek help?  Remember, you can’t control what the person does, but if you want them to take steps to get help, laying those steps out as clearly as possible makes it more likely for them to follow through.