Caring for someone with a drug problem can be very stressful. You may feel anxious, depressed or ashamed because of their drug use. But remember, you're not alone. There is support available for you and the person you care for.
How can I tell if someone's using drugs?
You might not realise for a while that the person is using drugs. There's no sure way to tell, but some clues include:
- burnt foil, which may have been used for smoking heroin
- tiny pieces of cling wrap, 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
Drugs can cause changes in people's physical appearance, including:
- sudden weight loss or gain
- sniffing or a runny nose
- small pupils
- red, glassy or bloodshot eyes
- frequent nosebleeds
- slurred speech
Changes in behaviour can also be a sign that someone is using drugs. These could include:
- seeming withdrawn or inactive
- extreme changes in mood or behaviour
- increased spending or loss of possessions
- changes in sleeping patterns
- not worrying about personal grooming
- losing interest in sports or hobbies
- neglecting responsibilities
- appearing agitated or restless
Many of these clues are caused by other things. It's normal for teenagers, especially, to go through emotional changes.
It's important to talk honestly to the person rather than making assumptions. It will help if you get your facts right. The Department of Health provides information about different drugs and their effects on their website.
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. They are also responsible for deciding whether to stop using drugs.
Some families of people who use drugs will be in denial and refuse to believe the facts. Others 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 uses drugs, their behaviour often leads to conflict with the people who care about them. A person using drugs may do things that you think are unacceptable, particularly if they happen in the home where you or other family members live.
Help for you as a carer
Caring for a partner, family member or friend who has a drug abuse 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.
There are local and national organisations that support the families and carers of people who use 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 information, contacts or counselling services by going to the National Drugs Campaign website.
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 doctor. Alternatively, the person you care for can contact their nearest drug addiction service.
How you can help them
Even when they know they have a drug problem, it can be difficult for people to change. You may need to be patient. If the person isn’t ready to seek help, you can still support them by trying to minimise the impact that their drug use has on them and others around them.
As a start, you may be able to help by letting them know about the support that's available to them. If they choose to seek help for their drug use, you can support them 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 use is just the start, and maintaining the changes they've made may be the most difficult part. Recognising situations that could trigger their drug use, and trying to avoid these, could help. If the person you care for does lapse back into drug use, 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.
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Last reviewed: January 2021