Alcohol and drug use is common, but most Australians don’t know how to help their loved ones

Alcohol and drug use is common, but most Australians don’t know how to help their loved ones

When Denise (not her real name) found out her son was using drugs during his senior year of high school, she was surprised.

She had long suspected that something was wrong, but he hid it well.

“It was such a shock, it’s not what I expected, I definitely didn’t recognise the signs,” she said.

“I saw that my son was not well… he did not look healthy.”

He mainly used cannabis, but over the years he began taking other drugs such as acid, cocaine and ecstasy.

He also distanced himself from her and the rest of the family.

“It was really painful because we were very close and a close family,” she said.

The worst part was the fear and finding out that he had found himself in “life or death” situations.

“I heard he collapsed and was taken to hospital (while using drugs),” she said.

“Members of the public called an ambulance and I am very grateful to them.

“As a parent, hearing this is devastating and terrifying.”

Denise said she knew she had to find a way to stop using drugs. Fast.

She gave him an ultimatum: stop using drugs or move out.

“I really thought it would work,” she said.

Generic holding phone

When Denise’s son moved away, she said it further damaged their relationship.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

But the plan failed. He moved out and Denise said it only made their relationship worse.

“It was devastating for him, it was devastating for me,” she said.

Looking back, she says she didn’t know how to talk to her son about the problem, or what to do to help him, much less herself.

Most people don’t know how to help

A new survey by the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) has found that, like Denise, most people concerned about a loved one’s drinking or drug use don’t know how best to help.

Nearly 60% of respondents said they did not know how to express their concerns.

ADF chief executive Erin Lalor said people were understandably feeling overwhelmed.

“The majority… just didn’t know how to have that conversation or how to seek help,” she said.

Erin Lalor standing in an office next to shelves of brochures and resources.

Erin Lalor says it’s important to seek advice and start a conversation as early as possible.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

In the survey of 3,600 people, about 10% said they were worried about someone else, and half of them didn’t know where to find information or support to help their loved ones.

And of those who did, many waited a long time for help.

“About a third of them waited five years or more before seeking help and support and some of them waited more than 20 years,” she said.

Dr Lalor said shame and stigma surrounding drug use was a major barrier to people getting the help they needed.

Alcohol or other drug use is not always a major cause for concern, she added.

But she said when it’s affecting a person’s health, mental health, ability to work, relationships or overall participation in life, it’s time to get help.


Denise wishes she had sought help sooner and believes it could have saved her and her son pain and suffering.

“It took a few years, several years before I started seriously looking for information,” she said.

“I really needed support — sooner than expected — for what I was feeling: the loss I was feeling, the fear I was feeling, the anger.”

Denise eventually sought help from Family Drug Support Australia (FDS) and from there things slowly started to change for the better.

Control and ‘interventions’ don’t work, experts say

Chloe Span, FDS Clinical Services Manager, works with people in Denise’s situation every day.

She said one of the hardest things for people to accept was their lack of control over the situation.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of families have their cars running, their rehab booked and their bags packed and they’re like, ‘Come on, let’s go,'” she said.

Chloe Span smiling in a cozy room decorated with a poster titled "Hallucinogenic plants"

Chloe Span says that resorting to the “hard way” or trying to control your loved one is not effective.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Evidence shows that forced rehabilitation, staged “interventions” and the “hard way” are not effective, she said.

“There’s a big difference between tough love and boundaries,” she said.

Ms. Span said boundaries that maintain physical, psychological and financial safety are extremely important.

She said asking a loved one to move for safety reasons was different from asking them to move as a threat to try to force change.

She said actions such as providing money or shelter do not “enable” someone to use alcohol or other drugs.

“We do not control other people’s drug use, nor are we responsible for it,” she said.

“If this person wants to consume, he will find a way to do it.”

“I am proud of my son”

Helping someone you care about whose alcohol or other drug use is distressing and can be a high-stakes problem.

More than 3,500 people died from alcohol or other drug use in 2022, according to the latest data from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center (NDARC).

This represents more than 10 deaths per day, and the highest number of alcohol-related deaths in 20 years, the NDARC said.

A generic image of a woman's hand holding a glass of wine.

There were more than 1,700 alcohol-related deaths in 2022, the highest number in 20 years, according to NDARC data.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

But Span said most people recover, especially when they have a strong support system.

“A loving, caring family (or friends) who are engaged and connected with them, who trust them, who are willing to listen to them, that’s a huge motivator for someone,” she said.

Chloe Span standing in front of a window, looking at her reflection.

Chloe Span says loving family and friends are a drug user’s most valuable asset.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

For Denise and her son, learning to talk to each other and trust each other has worked wonders.

“Our relationship is close, it’s probably closer today than it’s ever been. There’s a lot of trust between us,” she said.

“A lot of it is because of the changes I’ve made. I’m really proud of my son and I’m proud of our relationship.

“We all need to feel loved and accepted. We need to feel like we belong… He told me that it was essential for him to feel that and to know that.”

If Denise has one piece of advice for anyone in her situation, it’s this: “I would say do your research first, don’t make mistakes,” she said.