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Visions Journal

Supporting Someone Who is Using Substances

Trudy Norman, PhD

Reprinted from the Recovery: Living Your Bestish Life issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (4), pp. 23-24

Stock photo of two men, one of who has his hand around the shoulder of the other in a comforting gesture

Supporting each other is a basic human opportunity and responsibility. But sometimes we do not know how to help. When someone we care about is using psychoactive substances (e.g. nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, or opioids) in ways that may be harmful, we may wonder not only what we can do, but what is appropriate.

Helping others is mostly about helping them understand themselves. This is not about telling them anything so much as it is about exploring questions together about how to increase control over their health. This often involves encouraging them to reflect on their goals, desires, needs, strengths and resources.

Below are some basic ideas, strategies and resources that can help you understand and support a loved one who may be at risk. The strategies below aren’t confined to substance use. Read on to find out more about having supportive conversations with the person you care about.

A Supportive Path

Supporting a person involves a commitment to advancing their best interests as determined by them. It starts with the assumption that people are experts on themselves, and that no one can be expected to have the answers for someone else. Supporting involves what Carl Rogers, an American psychologist, called accurate empathy that is, working to understand the other person’s “inner world of private personal meanings as if it were your own, but without ever losing the ‛as if’ quality.”  This is not about identifying with the feelings of the other person or pitying them. It is believing the other person’s views are relevant and important in addressing any concerns they may have. The opposite of empathy is imposing one's own views on the other person.

Supporting a person to explore their substance use or any other behaviour is not a matter of doing something to the person, like giving medicine. Rather, it is a collaboration between equals. It doesn’t work through confrontation or coercion. Informal chatting can help create a level of comfort; however, a truly supportive conversation should move to explore more personal concerns.

Being a supporter is in many ways like being a friend. By learning and practising some basic skills, you can become a more able supporter or friend. In the meantime, here are some things to think about prior to engaging in a supportive conversation.

Nine Tips for Supporting Another Person

  1. The person you want to support needs you. Your caring and wisdom can foster a sense of self-worth that will aid the person through their life challenges and beyond.

  2. What do you enjoy doing together? Discovering and exploring mutual likes and dislikes can help you better understand each other, build a deeper relationship between you and provide support.

  3. What interests does the other person have? What do they want out of life? Understanding and supporting their interests and goals shows that you believe in them.

  4. Share your life experiences and what you have learned. This can foster discussions that can help them solve issues other than substance use, building the confidence and resilience needed at any stage of life.

  5. Life is a learning journey. Time and space are needed to reflect on what we have learned no matter what our age. Allowing space for the person to determine what experiences mean to them fosters a sense of ownership of their life and ability to decide what their next steps might be.

  6. We are all human, and make mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities to learn together.

  7. The other person will challenge you! This is natural. Engaging in a mutually respectful way demonstrates you appreciate them, their needs, and their values.

  8. Making time to listen shows that you value communication and that they matter to you.

  9. Being a supportive friend or caring person to someone can be challenging. Engaging in conversation, letting the person know you are doing your best and are interested in their thoughts, demonstrates that you are a person too. Perfection is not required.

Change happens when a person wants to change, feels able to, and develops a plan to achieve that change. Any plan must be developed by the person who will be doing the changing, not imposed by anyone else. If the person is not ready or interested in making different choices, you can support them by helping them explore their thoughts and feelings. At some point they may wish to make changes in their life. People often feel most ready to consider change around those who do not pressure them. If and when they are ready to change, they may seek you out for support to discuss their plans.

Supporting another person to consider their life experiences can be a positive experience for both people. A relationship can deepen as conversations take place. Supporting a friend or family member may also lead us to consider our experiences and where we may wish to make changes in our own lives.

About the author

Trudy joined the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) mobilization team in 2018. She has over 25 years of community experience working with and for people who are homeless. She is passionate about health promotion, health literacy, and making research findings accessible to all

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