Relationships on the Rocks: Expert discusses how to approach a loved one about problematic drinking during pandemic



While there are a number of factors behind the development of a substance use disorders, there is no denying that the mental  distress as a result of the global pandemic is certainly cause for concern. Social distancing and being away from family and loved ones for prolonged periods can be emotionally difficult and have a negative impact on your mental health.

According to Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer of AlcoholRehab.com, people have been drinking more since lockdown regulations were implemented for a variety of  reasons, including fear, loneliness, heightened anxiety and depression, unemployment and financial instability. 

Identifying a friend or family member’s problematic drinking and/or an increasing dependence on alcohol can be difficult to discern since being homebound due to the pandemic, but there are some subtle tell-tale signs. You may have a gut feeling that something is wrong, notice that they’ve been withdrawing from group chats or video calls, sending frequent drunk texts, or posting uncharacteristically on social media.

Here are eight pieces of expert advice provided by Dr. Weinstein on how to handle a situation wherein you find yourself having to confront a close friend or family member about their unhealthy drinking habits.

1.  People will often deny that they have a drinking problem.

According to Dr. Weinstein, “Despite what is seen by family and loved ones, the person drinking may not see an issue with their intake. Some individuals that meet the clinical diagnosis of severe alcohol use disorder don’t even believe they have a drinking problemMore often than not, being confronted with this information will elicit a strong denial.”  It may be disheartening to be met with this response even when the signs of a serious problem are plain to see.

2. Ways to help identify an alcohol use disorder

Dr. Weinstein explains that there are 11 key factors* used by clinicians to diagnose an alcohol use disorder, which can also be used by loved ones to identify the severity of a perceived disorder, for example: Have they cut back on activities that were once important or interesting to them in order to drink?

*View a full list of identifying factors of an alcohol use disorder here.

3. Be empathetic and understanding in your approach

Approaching a friend or family member about their alcohol consumption can be difficult, therefore, “It is imperative that the concern for their drinking is presented to them in a manner conducive to receiving the message.” Reassure the individual that you are coming to them out of a place of care and compassion, so they don’t feel attacked or targeted.

4. Anticipate the possibility of a negative reaction

It is not uncommon for people to become angry and defensive when confronted, however, reassure them that the conversation was brought up out of an abundance of care and concern for their health and wellbeing. “Additionally, allow the individual to respond and speak without interruption,”  said Dr. Weinstein. “They can be encouraged to seek help, but it’s most important that the friend or family member understands that they have support in whatever is needed for them to get treatment.”

5. What to do if your loved one refuses help

If the individual needs help but refuses to seek it, you as a friend or family member should aim to set strict boundaries and adhere to them, in order to prevent enabling their addiction further. For example, “Assisting them by driving them to an appointment would not be an enabling act, but providing money for gas would be,” informs Dr. Weinstein. “If boundaries are not kept or if the rules are bent, there is no incentive for the person with addiction to seek treatment and change their behavior.”

6. Don’t forget about your own mental health

Doing the above will also help alleviate stress on your own mental health. “Addiction is not a disease that only affects one person. Ensure the friend or loved one that they have your full support in seeking treatment, but maintaining healthy boundaries are necessary for your mental health as well.”

7. You can only help someone who wants to help themselves

Even as a close friend or loved one, you can only help an individual if they are willing to help themselves. “There are a myriad of resources available to those with a substance use disorder that can provide a wealth of information.” You can direct the individual to online resources and support pages, which will allow them to read up on these topics on their own accord. If they are the type to talk things out rather, there are hotlines, online support forums, chatrooms and other virtual meetings that can also be accessed anonymously if preferred.

See SAMHSA or Alcohol.org

8. Should I seek treatment on behalf of my loved one?

It is crucial to understand that the path to recovery is not something that can be forced upon a person – they must want to seek help from within themselves. If the individual was in a dangerous state or causing harm to others, it would be required to seek help on their behalf. However, doing this for someone who has no interest or intention in recovery has a low probability of success.

‘No matter how strong the relationship, bringing up an alcohol use disorder with a close friend or family member is no easy feat. It requires care, compassion, sensitivity, support and understanding,’ says Dr. Weinstein. ‘If a loved one’s drinking problem causes concern, it may be beneficial to bring it up to their family in confidence if you think It could aid in their journey towards recovery.’

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