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Visions Journal

Curiosity, Connection and Care

The keys to supporting loved ones struggling with substance use

Brittany Lank, BSc. Psych., MA Counselling Psychology

Reprinted from the Families, Friends and Substance Abuse issue of Visions Journal, 2024, 19 (2), pp.11-13

Stock image of elder woman and young man comforting each other

If you’ve ever seen a loved one struggle with a mental health or substance use problem, you’ve likely felt that pang in your chest pulling you to do something, anything, to help them make a change or make their problems go away. It can be a helpless feeling, and it’s hard to know where to start to offer support. So, how can you help—and take care of yourself through that process? I have come to see support as boiling down to three key concepts: engaging your curiosity, connecting with what matters and taking care of yourself. 

To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying it’s your responsibility to heal a loved one who is facing difficulties with substance use. It’s not! I am saying you have the power to respond compassionately to your loved one’s suffering and to choose how you care for yourself. As with many things, this is much easier said than done.

As a mental health therapist, I’ve seen how struggles with mental health and substance use impact individuals. It took longer for me to fully grasp the larger-scale effects these challenges have on families, friends and communities. Once my eyes were open to these ripple effects, I recognized the strength and healing power of those relationships. If we hurt so deeply when our loved ones hurt, don’t we also feel warmth, love and support when our loved ones show us the same? What if we used the power of our relationships as the starting point for supporting them? 

Below, I describe three approaches, based on curiosity, connection and care, that I think build on this idea of offering support through relationships. 

Adopt a lens of curiosity 

It’s natural and so very human for us to judge others, whether it’s conscious or not. Biases and judgments can be sneaky, such as believing your loved one should or shouldn’t do certain things, or monitoring the line between “problematic” and “responsible” substance use. If biases take centre stage in a relationship, they can create walls between you and genuine acceptance of your loved one. 

Genuine acceptance is key in maintaining open and supportive relationships, and curiosity can be a strong ally in practising acceptance and limiting judgments. Be curious about everything: your automatic beliefs, what kind of resources are out there, your loved one’s experiences or substance use in general. You might not feel comfortable talking to your loved one directly about their substance use, but you can read about the issue (see resources below) or think about your own experiences and ideas about substance use. 

You might already have some openness with your loved one and be able to ask them questions about their hopes or worries, how you can support their goals or what else is happening in their life related to how they use substances. Whichever way you approach it, engaging your curiosity and seeking to understand also shows your loved one you are willing to be unsure (which can be uncomfortable), to learn and to put in time and energy to understand them. This communicates the message that they’re not alone. 

Here are some resources to indulge your curiosity and learn more about stigma: 

Connect with what matters

As much as our health care system can make it seem like the only hope for helping somebody struggling with substance use is through medical or psychological treatment, the scope of what can actually be healing is far broader. There can be healing in a warm home on a cold night, in sharing a deep, bellyaching laugh with a good friend or in walking side-by-side through a golden forest of autumn trees. You don’t have to be your loved one’s doctor, therapist or coach, but you can be their friend, parent or partner. 

When I work with young people and families, I often encourage connection to three main things: connection with yourself, with others and with your values. Any way you can encourage your loved one’s connection to these things can play an important protective and supportive role. When you consider that the experience of people struggling with substance use is often entangled with isolation or disconnection, each of these is vital. In practical terms, connecting can mean playing a board game, going for a walk, making a meal together or coordinating and attending a cultural or spiritual ceremony. 

For more ideas about supporting your loved one by connecting with what matters, you can read Supporting People Who use Substances: A Brief Guide for Friends and Family, by the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, available from:

Extend the same care to yourself that you offer to others

I know: the term self-care is overused and can ring as hollow. But when it comes to supporting a loved one with substance use struggles, self-care truly is a necessity. Use whichever cliché you’d like—you can’t pour from an empty cup. You deserve compassion and care. You also can’t control others, including your loved one, or force change or wellness onto them. You can control how you tend to your own garden. 

Lean into the same things you might encourage your loved one to connect with—yourself, other people and your values. Try to treat your self-care as an ongoing practice of recognizing and meeting your needs. Occasionally, this might take the form of those self-care clichés, like bubble baths or yoga. More often, effective self-care will come in subtler forms: 

  • resting when your body needs a break 
  • setting and maintaining loving boundaries 
  • sleeping and eating as wholesomely as you can 
  • asking for help when you need it and accepting it when it’s offered

Remember: self-care doesn’t mean you have to do this alone. In fact, one of the kindest acts of self-care you can offer yourself is building a community of people who understand and support you so you don’t feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. 

To find communities near you, try exploring organizations like:

No matter what your relationship to them is, watching a loved one struggle with substance use is hard. As much as it might be less painful, it’s impossible to erase your loved one’s struggle. What you can do is embrace the power of curiosity, connection and care to foster genuine, holistic and meaningful support for your loved one. You’re not in this alone, and hopefully some of these ideas can help you lend yourself and your loved one some gentleness, compassion and hope.

About the author

Brittany is a child and youth mental health therapist with lived experience navigating mental health struggles and over 10 years of experience working with young people in social service or mental health settings, including as a concurrent disorders clinician with Foundry Prince George

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