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Substance Use Disorder: What to Do When It Affects a Loved One

Approximately 1 in 5 of Canadians fit the criteria of experiencing a substance use disorder in 2012. The likelihood of a loved one being affected by this disease is quite high. We will discuss the signs and symptoms of substance use disorder, as well as the ways in which you can navigate your relationship in a healthy way. It's important to note that the type of relationship involved will also present unique challenges; a friendship with an individual who is affected by the disease will be different than a romantic relationship or a parent-child relationship. Take the information that you feel applies to you.

What does substance use disorder look like?

It may be challenging to recognize disordered substance use because its’ symptoms, characteristics and effects vary for each person. According to Mayo Clinic, this disease “affects a person's brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication”. Substances include but are not limited to nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, and opioids. Often, the use of the substance may continue despite having harmful effects on an individual and the people that this individual loves.

For more information from Mayo Clinic, click here. The Mayo Clinic states that the best way to avoid an addiction is to not use substances. Please keep in mind that this is not reflective of Healthy U's harm reduction model, and we understand that this ideology may not be realistic for everyone. For more information about the harm-reduction model, click here.

The line between substance use and abuse are not always clear. Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests this line may be defined in some of the following ways:

  • When an individual requires more of a drug for similar effects.

  • When an individual feels negative symptoms when using less of a drug or not using a drug.

  • When an individual spends less time socializing or participating in their regular activities.

  • When an individual continues to use the drug despite negative or harmful effects to themselves or others.

For more information from Johns Hopkins Medicine, click here.

How can I navigate my relationship?

Each person’s experience with substance use disorder will be different, so it may feel challenging to understand how to move forward with your relationship with this individual. The most important thing to remember is to put yourself first. American Addiction Centers has listed the following ways that you can do this.

  • Reach out. Speak to a person you trust about the things you are going through.

  • Make time for yourself. Start journaling your experiences, setting time for your favourite activities and spending time with people other than the individual.

  • Be aware of your focus. It is common to focus on the behaviours of substance abuse in an attempt to make the situation better. While this is a normal response, others' behaviours are not in our control. An awareness of these tendencies can shift your focus back to what is in your control, namely what you can do for you.

  • Seek help from a professional. Click here for support groups and meetings for those struggling with someone’s substance use.

  • Compile your own resources. Make a list of places you can go or people you can call in case of a crisis. Places may include someone’s home, the library or the park and people you can call can include a friend, teen hotlines or emergency services.

Click here more information from American Addictions Center regarding spouses and parents.


It is not easy to live with a substance use disorder, nor is it easy to love someone experiencing it. Recognizing substance abuse, setting boundaries and prioritizing yourself are steps in the right direction.

For more information about supporting people who use substances, click here.


About the Author

Jayden (She/Her)

Hello! This is my second year with the Healthy U team and I have loved gaining knowledge about a variety of health topics and working alongside the many talented members. I am currently in the Faculty of Science and working towards majoring in Biology.

I enjoy getting to know new people and spending time with my family. My hobbies include running, camping and skiing.


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