How to have Courageous Conversations

Having caring and respectful conversations about substance use begins by being a good listener. Learn more about how to approach this topic with the people you care about.

This article was developed in partnership with Fraser Health

You can be an important connection in the life of someone who is using substances. Whether you are a parent, a friend, a partner, or a colleague of someone who uses substances, the conversations you have together can help prevent an overdose. Starting the conversation may not be easy, and it may be tough to find the right words to say, but talking together can lead to effective overdose prevention.

It may take many talks. Things may be said that hurt or are hard to hear. It may not go the way you want. However, talking openly and honestly about substance use during a caring and compassionate conversation is a crucial first step, and one that you can take together.

The information contained here is intended to provide general assistance to the reader. It does not encompass all of the individual circumstances that influence complex or difficult problems associated with drug use. This information is not intended to take the place of professional medical care. If you or someone you know needs overdose prevention or substance use support, please consult your family doctor or dial 8-1-1, a free telephone resource that provides 24/7 non-emergency advice and support.

When is the best time to have a talk?
Choose a time when the person is free from distraction and isn’t feeling tired or rushed. Make sure the person has eaten and is hydrated, as hunger and thirst can often affect mood. Avoid starting the conversation when you are feeling upset, angry or other strong emotions.

Where is the best place to have a talk?
Choose a place that feels comfortable for the person. Switch off your phone so you won’t be interrupted. Sitting beside or at an angle to the person is sometimes better than sitting directly in front of the person, as it is less confrontational. Some people may find it’s easier to engage in conversation when they are moving and engaging in activity. It can help to go for a walk to talk things over.

How to start the conversation

Invite the person to talk. You might ask “Is it o.k. if I talk to you about something important?” Set aside your fear/worry and focus on speaking from your heart that you truly care about this person (otherwise they might interpret your concern as nagging or lecturing). You could say “I want you to know that I care deeply about you and that I’m here no matter what. I see that you’re struggling with something. Please help me understand what’s happening.”

Listen without judgement/blaming/shaming/attacking/guilting/nagging – it will shut the conversation down promptly; work together to create a shared understanding of the risks of using illicit drugs. Ask what else might help.

What to do when the talk didn’t go the way you wanted
Shake out any tension you may have. Be gentle with yourself and your thoughts.

Don’t give up. It may take many talks. The most important thing is to continue to share that you care about this person.

Keep calm and let it go. Don’t drag the negative aspects of past conversation attempts into future conversations. Keep focused on being there for the person no matter what.

When the person refuses to talk
If the person doesn’t want to talk about substance use or overdose prevention with you, you could…

  • Try to set aside some time each day to talk with the person about other things. Ask open-ended questions and let them know that if they want to talk, you’re happy to listen.
  • Find another person they would be comfortable talking with. You could suggest a relative, friend, counsellor or neighbour.
  • Try other ways to reach out if talking isn’t working (e.g. a letter, e-mail or text sometimes helps with a younger population who may see direct verbal conversation as confrontational).

What else you can do to help save a life

If you have a youth or adult in your life who uses illegal drugs regularly or occasionally – or if you use illegal drugs yourself – here are some important actions to take:

  • Carry a naloxone kit and learn how to use it. Find a location where you can get a kit and training.
  • Be prepared to give rescue breaths in case someone overdoses; giving rescue breaths before help arrives can save a life and prevent brain damage.
  • Anyone using drugs should do a small test amount first, and avoid mixing drugs (including with alcohol).
  • Anyone using drugs should do so with someone who will check on them and call 9-1-1 in case of overdose, or use an Overdose Prevention or Supervised Consumption Service if there is one in the area.
  • Call 9-1-1 in a health emergency – the Good Samaritan law can protect people from certain criminal charges (like simple possession) if they overdose or call 9-1-1 after witnessing an overdose.

Help is available

If you or someone you know needs overdose prevention or substance use support, please consult your family doctor or dial 8-1-1, a free telephone resource that provides 24/7 non-emergency advice and support.

Read more about how to have…

Courageous Conversations with Friends and Family:

Having a conversation about substance use and overdose prevention with someone you care about may not be easy. It may be tough to find the right words to say. But having the conversation together can save lives.

To become a safe person to talk with, use extra care and respect, come from a place of empathy, and remember that all people deserve human rights and dignity. Let them know that you care about them and that you value their life.

We all need support in our lives. Our friends and supporters are there to celebrate successes and help us through difficult times. But remember that your role as a friend is not the same as a mental health professional.

Stigmatization often leads to isolation, which makes people less likely to ask for help or access services. This has a direct, negative impact on the health of people who use drugs. Learn how you can help shift the conversation to combat overdose.

Courageous Conversations with Youth and Teens:

A collection of resources to help support parents and schools talk to children of all ages about drugs and drug use.

Help prepare yourself for questions and comments that may come your way. Embrace the opportunity to be open, honest and in tune with your child.

Talking openly, honestly and respectfully about opioids and other drugs can help us bond with our kids, which is a key factor in protecting them from substance-related harm. Here are tips for starting conversations about opioids or other drugs with our teens.

A tricky conversation covers any topic that might be embarrassing or controversial for either you or your child to discuss. Here are some tips to help you manage these conversations.