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How to Help Others Experiencing Drug Dependence

Having a close relationship with someone who is using drugs can be difficult and emotionally draining. Their use can cause them to behave erratically, and it can be difficult to know how to act around them.

They may become aggressive, angry or even violent, or withdrawn and detached. Everyone around them can be affected and this can be hard. While there are no simple answers about exactly what to do. Remember – you are not alone and there is help available. 

If someone you care about is using meth, the Meth Help Tool can provide guidance on the signs to look out for, coping strategies and what help is available.


Drug use, can affect everyone differently and effects will vary from person to person.

Changes in someone’s behaviour or moods and signs that are not characteristic of the person may indicate drug use, but these changes can also indicate another issue in their life that may not be drug-related. For example signs such as moodiness and being withdrawn can be signs of drug use but they can also be signs of normal adolescence. It can sometimes be difficult to tell with certainty that someone is using drugs.

Even if it becomes apparent that someone is highly likely to be using drugs, it is difficult to tell exactly what type of drug a person may be using. For instance, some drugs have withdrawal symptoms that are similar to intoxication effects of another, and some people may use a variety of drugs that may mask or heighten the effects of various drugs.

Some things to look for that may indicate someone is using drugs and is experiencing harm can include:

  • Mood swings or explosive outbursts
  • Lethargy, loss of interest, making less of an effort or a decrease in extra-curricular activities
  • Tiredness or changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Poor concentration and impaired memory
  • Frequent absences from school or work or declining marks or performance
  • Unwillingness to answer questions or being secretive
  • Keeping to themselves more than usual, minimal interaction with family, or sudden changes in friends
  • Unexplained need for money or money or valuables going missing
  • Trouble with police

Problem drug use is not just about what drug, or how much of a drug a person is using, but how their drug use affects their life and the people around them.

A person’s drug use can impact on their life in many ways and can affect everyone differently.  Understanding the effects of drugs can help you understand some of their behaviours, or why they may use drugs, so you can better understand the situation.

Why can’t they just stop using?

Problem drug use can mean different things to different people. What you perceive as a problem may be different to what others, or the user sees as a problem, and sometimes the person using may not even be aware that there is a problem and therefore does not feel the need to change.

People who use drugs regularly can also become dependent on the drug quite quickly. This means that the drug becomes central to a person’s life and they feel they cannot function properly without it. If a person is dependent on drugs, and then they suddenly stop or cut down their use, they will likely experience withdrawal symptoms. This can make it hard for the person to just stop using.

Family and friends can often be the first people to recognise there may be a problem, and can be well placed to offer help or contact support services for professional help.

If you suspect that someone is using drugs, try to stay calm and think about how you would approach them.

Remember, everyone is different, every situation is different and there is no one right way to tackle this problem.

Below are some tips on what you can do.

Be informed – Get your facts

It’s helpful to think about exactly what your concerns are. Gathering as much information as you can about what you might need to know about the issue may help you better understand and cope with the issue. It can also help you to decide what assistance, if any, you can provide and what further assistance you may need, and where you can get it.

While gaining as much information as you can, it is also important to respect a person’s privacy.

Call the Parent and Family Drug Support Line on (08) 9442 5050 or 1800 653 203 (country callers) and talk to a counsellor confidentially to get accurate information, the signs and symptoms and what options may be available. They can also help you to clarify what your concerns are and assist you in planning the steps needed to address the problem.

Maintain open and honest communication

There is no easy way to start the conversation with someone who has a drug problem. Some things that can help include:

  • Choose an appropriate time to talk without any distractions and avoid attempting to talk to them while they are under the influence of drugs.
  • Listen carefully without being judgemental. If the person wants to tell you something about their situation, listen carefully without getting annoyed or upset. Allow them to speak without interruption. After they have finished, it might help to repeat back to them what you have heard and understood so that if you have misunderstood anything, they can clarify this for you.
  • Try to remain calm and stick to the point you wish to get across. Refuse to be drawn into an argument.
  • Be clear and honest about your feelings, explain the problem and let them know how their drug use is affecting you. Let them know it’s not them as a person, but it’s their behaviour. Give examples where you can.
  • Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For example, try “I’m really worried about…” instead of “you should…” This may help prevent a defensive response from the person by indicating that these are your feelings.
  • Ask calm, respectful, open questions such as “What do you like about using drugs?”, “What do you get out of using drugs?” and “What don’t you like?” or “What are some of the downsides? This allows the person to explore their own thoughts and feelings.

Negotiate and set clear guidelines

It is important to agree on what you expect from one another. Discuss what level of support you are willing to provide, such as, can they call you at any time to talk if they need or want to or will you provide any financial support?

Negotiate and set clear guidelines and boundaries on what behaviours are acceptable, and what are not. Agree on the consequences should the person break the guidelines. It is important that these consequences be enforced. It is also important to think about what your limits will be, and be clear and direct about this.

Help them be responsible. It’s natural to want to help and protect the person you care about, but it’s not always helpful to “clean up” their mess related to their drug use. For example, if they want you to pay a fine they received, think about what would happen next time, and what does this teach the person. Be clear that while you will support them, you will not support their drug use and will not make excuses for them. This can help them face up to the consequences of their drug use.

Support and encourage positive behaviour

It can be hard to stay positive when someone you care about is struggling with their drug use and all the issues it may cause. Supporting and encouraging positive behaviour can be much more effective than just focusing on the negatives.

Encourage the person to develop supportive networks and to place themselves in positive environments.

Acknowledge and congratulate them when they achieve their goals, even the small, positive steps that the person is making towards dealing with their use. Even if they slip up, don’t look at it as a collapse, but as a temporary setback and encourage them to keep going. With each attempt, a person will learn more about themselves and what works and what doesn’t, which can be helpful when they try again.

Help the person maintain motivation by regularly reviewing their achievements and the reasons why they are trying to change their drug use.

Help find treatment options

There are a variety of treatment and support pathways available for people with drug related problems. The drug(s) used and the availability of services, as well as the user’s health, desired outcome, support network and unique circumstances need to be taken into consideration. Deciding on the best treatment pathway or combination of pathways can be best done in consultation with a drug and alcohol counsellor. You can help the person you care about access services, or these services can assist you in helping that person.

For more information see the Parent and Family Information and Support Pack.

Some drugs can cause a person to behave in an aggressive or violent manner. If this happens:

  • Stay calm
  • Move slowly and try not to make eye contact
  • Give the person space and don’t crowd them
  • Keep your voice low, calm and steady
  • Move children away
  • Make the area as safe as you can – remove dangerous objects
  • Don’t ask too many questions – say things like “I am not angry with you, I just want to make sure you are safe”
  • Try to use the person’s name – “Matt, can you tell me what’s going on for you?”
  • Reassure them
  • Be supportive. Tell them that they will be ok and that what they are feeling will pass when the drug wears off
  • Help them calm down by encouraging them to move to a quiet place where they can rest
  • Listen to them and respond with calming comments – this is not the time to argue
  • Respond. If a person is unwell they need help as soon as possible. If you require immediate help, call the emergency line (dial 000 from anywhere in Australia) for assistance.

If you are worried that you will get yourself or the person into trouble, don't forget that you are helping and later people will be thankful that you did. The ambulance officers are only interested in helping and police will not be contacted unless they feel threatened or if there is a fatality.

Problematic drug use, not only affects the user, but also the people around them. If someone close to you is having problems, you may experience a range of emotions such as frustration, anxiety, worry, guilt, a sense of powerlessness and denial. There may also be conflict between others around you as they also try to cope with the issue. For these reasons, it is important to remember to look after yourself too.

Support for you and those around you are very important, and it can be particularly hard if the person you are trying to help is not ready to change their behaviour. But even when they do decide to change their behaviour, it can take a long time and there can be set backs along the way which can make it difficult for you.

Make sure you have effective strategies to help you cope. Some things to think about may include:

  • Making time to do things that you enjoy – It may seem a bit strange to do something you enjoy when someone close to you is in a crisis, but if you have other interests and time away, you will be able to cope better with the whole situation.
  • Talk to a friend – Talking to someone you trust about how you feel can help you clarify your thoughts and work out what to do. Talking to a trusted friend may help you get things off your chest and it can help you feel a bit better about yourself or the situation.
  • Talk to a professional – Talking to someone outside your daily life, such as a professional counsellor or a trained parent support volunteer from the Parent and Family Drug Support Line can also be very helpful. They have talked to many other people in similar situations and can help you clarify your thoughts and work out what you are going to do, and explore ways to deal with the problem. There are a variety of support places available for people with drug related problems as well as those supporting people with a problem.
  • Join a self-help or support group – Some people join these groups to share their thoughts and experiences with others who may be facing similar situations. You may find sharing your experiences and talking them through can help you. There are several types of groups available, so you might want to go to a few to see which one suits you best. The Parent and Family Drug Support Line (08) 9442 5050 or 1800 653 203 (country callers) can assist you with what is available.

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