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Caring for someone with a drug problem

Caring for a partner, family member or friend who has a drug problem can leave you feeling isolated and alone. It may be hard to talk to others about your situation, particularly if they haven’t had the same experience as you. For many people, there’s also a stigma attached to drug misuse. However, there is support available for you, and the person you care for, if you or they choose to seek help.

You can watch the video below to see more about caring for someone who is addicted to drugs.

How can I tell if someone’s using drugs?

It may not be immediately obvious that someone is using drugs. It’s best to try talking honestly to the person you’re worried about. There is no definitive way to tell, but there are some things to look out for that may point towards drug use. These include:

  • burnt foil, which may have been used for smoking heroin
  • tiny pieces of clingfilm, paper or card that have been used to wrap drugs
  • hand-rolled cigarettes with filters made from cardboard
  • spoons and syringes
  • small sealable plastic bags used to store drugs
  • pipes, plastic bottles or drinks cans that have been pierced or tampered with

Changes in behaviour can also be a sign that someone is using drugs. These could include:

  • seeming withdrawn or inactive
  • extreme changes in mood
  • increased spending or loss of possessions
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • appearing agitated or restless

The psychological effects of drugs are spelt out in Live Well: drugs on the brain. However, there may be other reasons why a person starts to act differently. It’s normal for teenagers, especially, to go through emotional changes. It’s important to talk to your relative, partner or friend about what you think may be happening, rather than making assumptions.

Before you talk to someone you think may be using drugs, it will help if you get your facts right. The free national drugs helpline Talk to Frank (0808 77 66 00) provides information about different drugs and their effects. For more information, read these tips on broaching the subject of drugs.

Finding out that someone’s using drugs

There are different reasons why people use drugs. If someone you care about uses drugs, it can be very hard to understand why they are doing this. However, they are responsible for their own behaviour and it's their decision to use drugs. In the same way, they are responsible for deciding whether to stop using drugs.

Families of people who misuse drugs can go through certain patterns of behaviour when they learn about the issue. Some will be in denial and refuse to believe the facts. Some will end up encouraging drug use, whether deliberately or not, by providing money that can be used for drugs. Some will try to control or change the situation, while some will give up hope of change.

When someone misuses drugs, their behaviour often leads to conflict with the people who care about them. A person misusing drugs may do things that you think are unacceptable, particularly if they happen in the home where you or other family members live.

You can get advice by downloading information from Adfam on Coping with conflict (PDF, 92KB) and Setting and keeping boundaries (PDF, 104KB).

Help for you as a carer

Caring for someone with a drug problem can be very stressful. You may feel anxious, depressed or ashamed because of your caring role. However you feel, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone.

There are local and national organisations that support the families and carers of people who misuse drugs. Many carers find it helpful to talk to others in the same situation, perhaps at a local carers’ support group. Alternatively, online forums can provide an opportunity to share your experiences. You can find sources of support by searching the directory of local carers support or by calling the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053.

Help for the person you care for

Help is available for people with a drug problem. However, it’s important to realise that your friend or family member will only seek help when they’re ready.

The main way to access these services and support is by talking to a GP. Alternatively, the person you care for can contact their nearest drug addiction service.

How you can help them

Even when someone comes to terms with the fact that they have a drug problem, it can be difficult for them to change their situation. You may need to be patient. If they aren’t ready to seek help, the support you can offer will be limited to trying to minimise the impact that their drug use has on them and others around them.

If the person you care for has started to think about their situation and the negative effects of their drug use, you may be able to help by letting them know about the support that’s available to them.

When someone has chosen to seek help with their drug use, they may be anxious about what’s in store for them. One way that you could support them is by being understanding about how they’re feeling, while encouraging them in the changes they’ve chosen to make.

For many people, taking action to deal with their drug misuse is just the start, and maintaining the changes they’ve made may be the most difficult part. Recognising situations that could trigger their drug misuse, and trying to avoid these, could help. If the person you care for does lapse back into drug misuse, you can encourage them to seek help, for example by keeping in contact with local support services.

If the person you care for continues to use drugs despite the support you provide, this can be very frustrating and demoralising. Remember, the decision to use drugs is their responsibility, not yours, and make sure you seek help for yourself as a carer.

Addiction: helping a loved one

Looking after someone who has a drug or alcohol addiction can be daunting and frustrating, and it can damage your own health. Get expert advice on what to do to help your loved ones and find out how to look after yourself at the same time.

Media last reviewed: 05/08/2013

Next review due: 05/08/2015

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Page last reviewed: 21/12/2012

Next review due: 21/12/2014

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