How to recognize signs of substance abuse in loved ones


Loved ones are often key players in getting someone help with substance abuse. It’s important to be alert to the signs as recreational, casual use can quickly turn to addiction - with the best opportunity to challenge the behaviour lost. Drug and alcohol users begin to isolate themselves as they use more often, and their preferred drugs and/or alcohol can become their new “friends.” It’s imperative to identify and challenge substance abuse before these new habits become entrenched. Here are some warning signs to look out for:

Physical signs

  • Enlarged or small pupils, bloodshot eyes
  • Persistent cough, slurred speech, bloody/runny nose
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Tremors or shaking, poor coordination
  • Tiredness, insomnia
  • Poor hygiene, looking unkempt

Psychological signs

  • Changes in personality or attitude
  • Anxiousness
  • Inattentiveness
  • Lack of motivation, appearing lethargic or “spaced out”
  • Irritability or angry outbursts, agitation, hyperactivity
  • Emotional and mental withdrawal
  • Defensiveness, unexplained paranoia

Behavioural signs

  • Drop-in attendance and performance at work or school
  • Unexplained financial problems; borrowing or stealing
  • Engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviours
  • Sudden change in friends, hangouts, hobbies
  • Frequently getting into trouble (fights, accidents, illegal activities)

Substance abuse can’t be hidden for long

Loved ones are usually in the best position to recognize a problem. Telltale signs will appear and then it’s up to those close to the user to step in and find out what is going on. Use assertive (not aggressive) language, avoid accusations, and stick to the facts in a loving manner. During the conversation, try to stay calm, be open and honest, and let them know that you are there to help them get better.

Don’t ignore the problem

Don’t think they’ll just “snap out of it,” remember, addiction is a progressive disease. Being upset is normal but don’t look down on them, don’t give them ultimatums, don’t enable them, and don’t give up.

It’s important to know the enemy

Research the drugs you suspect are being abused at websites like the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. Finally, don’t try to do it alone, we’re here if you need help.