How Do You Support Someone Who Doesn’t Want Help?

January 16, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

Many people’s stories of addressing substance use-related challenges involve courageous conversations with their personal connections and community.

These conversations are important to have. Yet they don’t always lead to action right away.

You may have built up the courage to talk to someone close to you that you see struggling, only to find that they do not want help.   

This can be very difficult to accept. It’s common to feel frustration, disappointment and anger.

You may be tempted to react with these feelings and confront the person on their substance use. However, it’s important not to let these emotions influence what you say or do next.

“No matter how worried you are or how negative the consequences you’re seeing from a loved one’s substance use, you can’t force them to change or access treatment if they aren’t ready.” -  Grief to Action: When Addiction Hits Home

The “tough love” approach risks making the person feel shame and guilt about their challenges: a stigmatizing experience which will likely make things worse. There is also a chance it could damage the connection between you, which may lead the person to feel that they cannot talk to you about their problematic substance use.

Instead, your next steps should focus on continued support – for the person in question and yourself.

What to do for your loved one

Try to understand what progress looks like for the person experiencing substance use challenges. Everyone is different. Understanding how your loved one relates to their substance use can help you find realistic ways to support them. The Stages of Change model can help. Do you see your loved one experiencing any of the stages below?

  1. Pre-contemplation: they see no problem with their substance use and have no intention to change
  2. Contemplation: they have recognized a problem with their substance use but have mixed feelings about stopping or reducing their use and haven’t decided to make any changes
  3. Preparation: they have recognized there is a problem with their substance use, want to change their behaviour, and has started to plan to change
  4. Action: they have recognized there is a problem with their substance use and have started to make changes to their behaviour
  5. Maintenance: they have made significant changes to their behaviour and are working to maintain their behaviour, which may be reduced use or abstinence

Use these criteria to match your expectations with what positive steps look like for your loved one. For example, a person who doesn’t feel like they have an issue with substances is unlikely to consider treatment. However, they may be open to carrying naloxone or using drug checking, overdose prevention or supervised consumption services to stay safe.

While this approach may not be the immediate solution you were hoping for, it ensures continued support, and maintains open, honest communication; foundations that will be essential for the person to move through the Stages of Change when they are ready.

What to do for yourself

Supporting someone close to you through their substance use can be tough. It’s important to also look after your own needs throughout this process.

Do not blame yourself – for feelings of anger or disappointment, or the person’s substance use. These emotions are natural, and guilt is not constructive.  

Ensure you practice self-care: regular exercise, good diet and a healthy sleep schedule will help you maintain positive mental and physical wellbeing.

Remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. Consider finding a counsellor or joining a support group for those impacted by addiction. Find a list of services on the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use website.

Continue to learn and explore. This road will come with milestones, achievements and setbacks. There are many tools and resources available to support you throughout the journey.