It can be really tricky to know what to do when someone you care about starts using drugs. Raising the issue and listening without judgement is a good place to start
My friend is using ice and smoking dope. He says it makes him feel good like his medication doesn’t. His parents know but don’t know what to do. I am worried, as he has stopped being chatty and is not going out or doing anything. He is changing, but worse.
Working out what to do when you are worried about a friend who is using drugs can be tricky. Just asking the question shows what a supportive friend you are and that’s a very good start.
There’s not one right way to approach it. There are many ways to help and support your friend.
Remember, they might not see their drug use as a problem (from what you have said it sounds like they view it as a solution rather than a problem).
You can’t force your friend to do anything they don’t want to do. In the end, it needs to be their decision to change, but there’s lots you can do to support and encourage them.
How do you know if it’s a problem?
One thing to remember is that most people who use drugs only use occasionally for a short time in their lives and won’t develop a serious issue.
People take drugs for lots of different reasons, including because it is fun or it makes them feel good, to “escape” from problems, and to make physical (like pain) or emotional (like anxiety) problems go away (sometimes referred to as “self-medicating”).
If your friend is using drugs regularly it’s more likely they’ll be having negative effects. Signs that drug use is becoming a problem include:
- using weekly or more
- giving up activities they used to enjoy to use or recover from drugs
- missing school or work or becoming unreliable
- needing to use more and more to get the same effect.
Raising the issue
One of the best pieces of advice anyone has given me came from a person who was supporting a family member who was using drugs. She said, “think about what you would do if drugs weren’t involved”. How would you approach your friend if they were doing anything else that worried you?
Also think about what you would like your friends to do or say if you were doing something they were worried about.
Find a time to talk when you’re both clear headed, you’re somewhere private and you have plenty of time. You don’t need to make it formal, just make sure the setting is good for a sensitive chat when you raise the issue.
Think about what you want to say beforehand so you are prepared.
It doesn’t usually help to plead, persuade, preach, bribe, guilt-trip or threaten (for example, “if you keep using, I will…”). Try not to speak in a judgemental or critical tone of voice, it usually just creates resistance.
Give them time to talk and don’t cut them off. A rule of thumb I use is they should be talking half the time or more. Ask questions that show your concern rather than telling them what to do. You might say something like:
You don’t seem to want to go out much anymore. We really miss hanging out with you. Is everything ok?
Or more direct:
I know drugs make you feel better when your medication doesn’t but I’m really worried about you and want to make sure you are OK.
If your friend doesn’t want to talk about it, it doesn’t help to take it personally or to argue the point with them. It can be a hard thing for people to talk about and they may need some time.
Let them know that you’re there to listen and support if they need it. If they know you’re open, they’re more likely to talk later. Just raising the issue and listening without judgement is helpful.
Other things you can do
How and how much you help is up to you. You might try to help your friend in practical ways, you might decide to just provide support and listen, or you might decide to step back and have less contact with them.
It’s OK if helping them becomes too much for you. You also need to look after yourself. It can be very hard seeing someone you love with problems. At times you might feel frustrated and helpless, like it’s impossible to get through to them. You might need to be patient because it can be hard to give up drugs once they have become a habit.
If you choose to provide a lot of help and support, you might want to talk to someone, such as a psychologist or counsellor, yourself.
Encourage them to engage in activities with you and your other friends that don’t involve alcohol or other drugs. Staying connected with friends who don’t use drugs can help prevent the problem from getting worse.
Try to keep them as safe as possible. Don’t leave them alone in a potentially dangerous situation (like walking home late at night or at a party) because you’re frustrated or angry at them for using drugs. Call an adult you trust to help if you need to, or an ambulance if they look unwell.
If things are getting worse it’s OK to suggest professional help. If they’re open to getting help, ask them what they want to do. You could say something like, “what do you think would be most helpful to you?”, or “would it help to speak to a trusted adult/school counsellor/doctor?” You could offer to go with them for support.
You could also see if the parents need some professional advice, and give them some of the numbers below. It might be helpful for your friend or their parents to talk to the doctor who prescribed their medication – the dose and effects might need to be reviewed.
Professor at the National
Drug Research Institute,
* Published in print edition on 15 February 2019
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