Given the prevalence of alcohol abuse and the opioid epidemic across the US, it is probably safe to say that everyone either knows of someone or has heard of someone in the media who has suffered from substance abuse. Some of these stories do not strike us as surprising because they fit our stereotypes of what a substance abuser looks like. We are usually not taken off guard by stories of wealthy, bored celebrities living a party lifestyle eventually entering rehab for a substance abuse problem or hearing about the high rates of drug abuse among homeless individuals (assuming that those examples reflect stereotypes you hold).
The stories of substance abuse that take us by surprise are those that do not fit our expectations. When we hear of stories of highly successful lawyers being addicted to drugs or alcohol (a recently published story in The New York Times can be found here), it can challenge our assumptions about who struggles with drugs and alcohol. When we rely too much on our assumptions or stereotypes we can miss warning signs of substance abuse in those we care about, even if we know what to look for. So why is that?
When a close friend, family member, or professional colleague does not fit our stereotype of a substance user, we can find it difficult to recognize their substance abuse for various reasons.
- We are influenced by the Halo Effect. Our positive impression of a person will affect how we evaluate behaviors or other aspects of their character.
- We look to confirm what we already believe. This is called the Confirmation Bias. We often use rationalization or assign a more positive explanation to the warning signs.
- The person abusing substances often compensates well or hides their addiction. Addiction is an isolating experience. Those who suffer with substance abuse are less likely to talk with others about it due to stigma or potential legal ramifications.
- If you are not the best friend or significant other of the person struggling with substance abuse, you can experience Diffusion of Responsibility (a factor of the Bystander Effect). This is when you feel like others probably know more about the situation or that others have probably intervened and therefore you do not need to intervene.
So, given the various obstacles to recognizing and responding to warning signs of substance abuse, what is one to do to reduce the likelihood of inaction when it comes to helping a friend, colleague or loved one?
- Be informed: Learn the common symptoms of substance abuse for various legal and illegal substances.
- Pay attention: Notice the warning signs and the “gut reactions” you have when you first notice something concerning.
- Reach out: Compassionately let the person know you care and are concerned about them.
- Approach uncertainty: Risk looking silly over avoiding a potentially awkward conversation.
- Offer help: Get familiar with resources or offer to explore helpful resources with your friend.
- Stay involved: Don’t let one conversation be the limit of your involvement.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, there are many kinds of resources available. For law students, lawyers, and judges in Massachusetts, LCL is a free and confidential resource to you. Give us a call (800-525-0210) or visit our website.
Shawn Healy, PhD