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COVID-19: How To Talk to Someone with Substance Issues

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This pandemic has led to most of us exhibiting all sorts of abnormal behaviours, one of which has been an increase in substance use as a way of coping. 

On a normal day having a loved one with a substance related disorders can be an emotional roller coaster.  And in my experience talking to family members who have a loved one living with these illnesses, it can be extremely difficult to separate our emotions from the situation.  Because of this difficulty, things get said to people living with the illness that can be judgmental, self-serving, stigmatizing, or even just downright mean.  This is not meant to place blame on anyone; no one instantly knows how to talk to someone with an addiction or dependency.  

The following is just to provide some understanding as to how changing our language can more effectively impact people living with these illnesses.  However, I highly recommend that anyone with a family member or loved one living with an addiction should talk to a professional to learn more about communication.

Take a person first approach:

A common stigmatizing behaviour between people living with mental illnesses versus physical ones is that we label the person by their illness.  For example, people with substance related disorders are much more commonly referred to as an Alcoholic, a Junkie, or a Druggie, rather than a person living with a substance related disorder.  Often conversations start with giving our opinion “I think you’re an alcoholic”.  Applying this label acts to define them as who they are and characterizes everything we should know about them. It ignores their humanity and so many other aspects of their life that encompass them.  Imagine calling a person who has Cancer a Canceric.  Instead of referring to the person as an alcoholic, refer to them as a person perhaps living with a mental illness.  This signifies it’s an illness that can be treated.

Listen without Judgement

Often the person living with the disorder is not being kind to themselves and they are already expecting others to judge, criticize or berate them.  Rather, show how them how much you care by saying something kind or giving a hug.  If you want to help them, show them this by really listening.  Everyone’s story is different and we don’t want to make assumptions of what they’re going through based on previous experiences.  Spend more time listening without interrupting or giving criticisms, judgements or even advice.  Learn the art of asking good open-ended questions to keep them talking freely such as, “Would you like to tell me more about that?” or “How long have you been feeling this way?”. Avoid close ended or judgemental questions such as “Are you using every day? Are you sad/tired/angry/etc? Why are you doing this?”.

Give information not advice

Two of the worst things we can say to a person with a substance related disorder are to give them our advice and opinion, which we do all the time! For example, first we label them with our opinion “I think you’re an alcoholic”, then next we give them our advice “You should go to AA and get some help”.  Giving opinion and advice will put the person into defensive mode because no one likes being given a negative opinion of them, and no one likes being told what to do.  Rather than saying “I think you’re an alcoholic and you should go to AA”, let them know that you care about them and you’re worried because of all the downward spiraling changes you’ve seen in them lately.  Instead spend some time finding phone numbers of places or websites that offer treatment programs in your area.  A great place to start is to look up your local Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) webpage or call Connex Ontario to find out more information.  Ask the person if they would like some help reaching out.  If the person refuses to get help then get the help for yourself to learn how to better cope.  There are lots of family and caregiver supports offered too.  Plus, it sets a good example for the person with the illness as it shows you’re taking steps to get help as well.

Show love and kindness while also setting your limits

Let the person know that you care about them no matter how severe their illness is.  This doesn’t mean that you have to accept their actions due to their illness.  Tell them exactly what your limits are and stay consistent. These are YOUR limits not a punishment for them.  For example, you don’t want to use threatening language such as “if you don’t quit using then you can’t live here anymore”.  This can be very stressful for everyone knowing that change is a process and that they likely will use again.  Rather state to them your limits for example “It is negatively affecting my well being having you live here continuing to use, so for my own well being these are my limits”. Again, it is good to speak with a counsellor to help find what your specific limits are and how to communicate those.  If someone with the addiction can’t see how much their behaviour bothers you, they have little reason to change.  Many people with an addiction aren’t as bothered by hurting themselves, it’s when they see their actions are hurting others they change. 

This is a difficult process for everyone, but when we treat our loved one as a person with an illness while taking care of our own mental health, they have a much higher chance of starting the recovery process.

 EDITOR’S NOTE: Christina Fuda is the Mental Health First Aid Coordinator at Ontario Shores. During the pandemic, she will be blogging regularly around the impact of COVID-19 from a mental health perspective. Send your suggestions for topics to @email 

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