Spotting the signs of substance misuse

It can be hard to spot the signs of substance misuse, but if you suspect a loved one is struggling, here’s what to look out for. 

Substance misuse and addiction are often a mystery, as people try hard to keep their usage secret out of fear of judgement. If you’re worried about a loved one, here are some signs to look out for that may indicate that something more is going on. 

  • Changes in mood. Sudden mood swings, irritability, paranoia, angry outbursts, or a lack of interest in things that used to interest them might mean a problem. 
  • Dishonesty. Lying about where they’ve been, who they’ve been with, and what they’ve been doing is a red flag. Hiding drugs and drug paraphernalia is also a worry, although you may not come across this if they’re particularly good at hiding things.  
  • Isolating themselves. Many people who struggle with substance misuse draw back from others, so look out for them drifting apart from friends and ditching hobbies and other social activities. 
  • New friends. As well as drifting apart from friends, they may suddenly have new friends and places to socialise, which may be linked to substance use. 
  • Irresponsible behaviour. You may find they start to neglect their responsibilities, whether that’s at home, school, or work. They may miss appointments or become reckless and careless. 
  • Changes in appearance. They might not look after their personal hygiene as much as before, or they might have bloodshot eyes or unexplained weight loss or gain. 
  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns. Both excessive sleeping or eating and not eating or sleeping are things to look out for. 
  • Sudden money problems. Borrowing money frequently, not paying bills, not buying essentials, and selling personal belongings could be ways of funding substance use.  
  • Unusual smells. Strange, unfamiliar smells on clothing or their breath may indicate substance use. 
  • Health problems. Tremors, sniffing, headaches, slurred speech, confusion, and impaired coordination may be signs of a problem with substances. 

Of course, these signs don’t guarantee that someone has a substance misuse problem, and it’s important not to jump to conclusions. You don’t want to push your loved one away or make them defensive, so be calm when talking to them.  

Let them know you’ve noticed some concerning behaviours and you’re worried about them. Reassure them that you’re not ashamed or angry, and that you’ll do all you can to support them to recover. Arrange to get professional help with them.  

Supporting a loved one with a substance misuse problem can feel extremely daunting, but with your support they can recover and lead a full and happy life without drugs.