2. Impact of Substance Use Problems on Families

Common stressors


Family members report that their lives change drastically when a relative has an addiction problem (Bartha et al., 2001). For example, you may experience: (select an item below to read more about it.)


A person with a substance use problem may not be able to follow family and day-to-day routines. As a result, family members need to take on increased responsibilities. For example, one parent might have been responsible for bringing the children to school every morning. A substance use problem could make it difficult to wake up early, so a partner may now have to take on this responsibility. The partner may feel they have lost a parenting partner and feel like a single parent.

The stress and unpredictability of having a relative with a substance use problem can affect social activities, daily routines and family roles. Because of your additional caregiving responsibilities, you may feel:

  • ●  isolated from friends
  • ●  unable to maintain friendships because you don’t have time
  • ●  embarrassed or ashamed about the substance use problem
  • ●  emotionally disconnected due to increased social isolation.

Concurrent disorders can severely affect a person’s ability to function in many areas (O'Grady, 2005). You may be concerned about leaving your relative alone because you are worried they may take harmful drugs, forget to take medications, take part in dangerous or criminal behaviour to get illegal drugs, or harm themselves. It can feel overwhelming to constantly watch for symptoms in your loved one while also dealing with the impact of the illness on yourself (O'Grady & Skinner, 2007, p. 58). Worrying about a relative can also negatively affect your emotional and physical well-being. You may be at risk for stress, poor sleep, weight loss or gain, depression and anxiety (Jones, 2009).

A partner with substance use problems can profoundly affect a relationship. For example:

  • ●  You may need to take on more responsibilities.
  • ●  Your finances or even your safety may be at risk due to changes in behaviour resulting from substance use problems.
  • ●  You may feel resentful, betrayed, angry and distrustful, which can lead to distance in the relationship.
  • ●  You may not want to be emotionally or physically close with your partner who has hurt you, and levels of intimacy may change.

Substance use problems by family members can lead to specific financial concerns. The person with the substance use problem may use family savings to purchase substances. The person’s substance use may lead to job loss, creating additional problems. The family member may also spend money in a way that can place your finances at risk. If your savings are suddenly lost, you may feel scared, angry and betrayed. In addition, the entire family can experience financial strain if you cannot leave your loved one alone while you go to work. This can cause further emotional strain.

Although there are services available for treating addiction problems, navigating the treatment system can be extremely challenging for clients and families. Some frustrations include:

  • ●  accessing information and services
  • ●  lack of integrated treatment programs
  • ●  long wait-lists.

Subtle issues such as not having room in a program or treatment when the person desperately needs it or releasing them from environments or treatments with no community services available to them is a huge problem. This leaves people essentially stranded, exposed and vulnerable with nowhere to go and no help in sight. In both cases this leaves them ripe for an escalation in use, relapse, overdose, serious incident, accident, harm from others . . . or self-harm.

Betty-Lou Kristy

—Betty-Lou Kristy
Family member affected by substance use problems

At times, having to navigate the health care system can be just as stressful as is dealing with the substance use problem experienced by a loved one. For some families, dealing with the health care system feels worse than dealing with the substance use problem.