How Do You Talk To Someone About Substance Use & Overdose Prevention?

February 26, 2018. Article by: Fraser Health Authority

You can be an important connection in the life of someone who is using substances. Starting the conversation may not be easy. It may be tough to find the right words to say to your loved one. But, talking together can lead to effective overdose prevention.

It may take many talks. Things may be said that hurt or are hard to hear. It may not go the way you want. But, an open, honest and caring conversation about substance use is a crucial first step. It is also a step that you can take together.

The information contained here is a general guide to help with how to start a conversation. But it's important to remember, each situation is unique. There are many individual circumstances that influence difficult problems associated with drug use.  This information is not intended to take the place of professional medical care. If you, or someone you know, needs help or support, connect with your family doctor or dial 8-1-1  (a free telephone resource that provides 24/7 non-emergency advice and support).  

How To Prepare Yourself For A Conversation

Remember the three C’s of conversation:

  • Connect to the present - Focus on your five senses to bring yourself into the present: “What do I see, hear, smell, feel, taste?”
  • Connect to your body - Take a few deep breaths, feel your toes and balls of feet on the ground, touch your hands together. It will help you keep calm and manage your tone
  • Connect to the individual -  Visualize how you want to look and sound before starting to talk


When Is The Best Time To Have A Talk?

Choose a time when the person is free from distraction and isn’t feeling tired or rushed. Make sure the person has eaten and is hydrated, as hunger and thirst can often affect mood. Avoid starting the conversation when you are feeling upset, angry or other strong emotions.


Where Is The Best Place To Have A Talk?

Choose a place that feels comfortable for the person. Switch off your phone so you won’t be interrupted. Sitting beside or at an angle to the person is sometimes better than sitting directly in front of the person, as it is less confrontational. Some people may find it’s easier to engage in conversation when they are moving and engaging in activity. It can help to go for a walk to talk things over.

How To Start The Conversation

Invite the person to talk.  You might ask:

  • “Is it o.k. if I talk to you about something important?” 

Set aside your fear/worry and focus on speaking from your heart that you care about this person (otherwise they might interpret your concern as nagging or lecturing).

You could say:

  • “I want you to know that I care deeply about you and that I’m here no matter what. I see that you’re struggling with something. Please help me understand what’s happening.” 

Listen without judgement or blame. It will shut the conversation down. Work together to create a shared understanding of the risks of using illicit drugs. Ask what else might help.

Tips To Help Keep You Calm & Focused

Notice if any negative thoughts come into your mind, and find a way to put them away in a mentally safe place. Writing them down and sealing them away in an envelope beforehand can help.

Keep your posture relaxed and your tone of voice calm.  Take three seconds and one deep breath before responding to any words that trigger you.

If you feel that you'll have a negative reaction to the conversation,  delay it until you do feel ready

Focus on what matters most: letting the person know that you care about them. Write it down or hold it in a symbol (e.g. a special stone or other small object) as a reminder and self-soothing object.


What To Do When The Talk Didn’t Go The Way You Wanted

Shake out any tension you may have. Be gentle with yourself and your thoughts.

Don’t give up. It may take many talks. The most important thing is to continue to share that you care about this person.

Keep calm and let it go. Don’t drag the negative aspects of past conversation attempts into future conversations. Keep focused on being there for the person no matter what.

When The Person Refuses To Talk

If the person doesn’t want to talk about substance use or overdose prevention with you, you could:

  • Try to set aside some time each day to talk with the person about other things
  • Ask open-ended questions and let them know that if they want to talk, you’re happy to listen
  • Find another person they would be comfortable talking with. You could suggest a relative, friend, counsellor or neighbour
  • Try other ways to reach out. If a conversation is seen as confrontational write a letter, e-mail or text

Talking With Teens & Young Adults

Be respectful when speaking about the facts and risks of using substances.  Educate yourself so you can answer questions. If you don’t know the answers, offer to look for them together.  Look for natural opportunities to discuss substance use and decision-making. Tie-in stories in the news and social media. Talk about why people use substances and the potential consequences.  And focus on your concerns for their safety rather than right/wrong, good/bad, obey/punish.

  • Become informed - Learn about the common substances used by young people. Know their street names and the signs of being under the influence
  • Be a good listener - Give teens room to take part and ask questions. Remember to respect their opinions
  • Stick to the facts - Avoid preaching, scare tactics and exaggeration. Research shows these tactics don’t work, and may lead to a loss of trust
  • Be open - Ask questions about what they’re hearing, seeing or have learned



What Else You Can Do To Help Save A Life

  • Carry a naloxone kit and learn how to use it  (Find a location where you can get a kit and training)
  • Be ready to give rescue breaths in case someone overdoses.  Giving rescue breaths before help arrives can save a life and prevent brain damage
  • Anyone using drugs should do a small test amount first.  avoid mixing drugs (this includes alcohol)
  • Anyone using drugs should do so with someone who will check on them. In the case of an overdose or a health emergency call 9-1-1. Remember, the Good Samaritan Overdose Drug Act can protect people from certain criminal charges (like simple possession) if they overdose or call 9-1-1 after witnessing an overdose
  • Use an overdose prevention or supervised consumption services if there is one in the area


Help Is Available

If you or someone you know needs overdose prevention or substance use support, please consult your family doctor or dial 8-1-1, (a free telephone resource that provides 24/7 non-emergency advice and support). 


[This article was adapted from “When Words Matter” developed by Fraser Health]