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Your Friend or Family Member Starts Using Again: Now What?
A hand on a persons shoulder as to show support.

Recovering from a substance use challenge, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, is a process with ups and downs. It can be a rollercoaster ride for the person in recovery as well as their family, friends, peers and colleagues. Unfortunately, people in recovery from a substance or alcohol use disorder often return to using the substance. This used to be referred to as a “relapse.” Using person-first language, such as “a person who starts using again,” is more respectful, sensitive verbiage. Knowing this — and having an idea of what to do when someone resumes an unhealthy and dangerous habit — can play a significant role in their recovery.

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) manual states that using substances after attempting to stop can be part of the recovery process. Understanding this will help you as you navigate the next steps.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says marked by growth, improved habits and sometimes setbacks. These setbacks are a natural part of the process and fostering resilience is essential for all individuals, family and peers. Recovery is dependent on a variety of factors including the person’s strengths, weaknesses, culture, background (including trauma), and resources.

If a person starts using again, it is not a sign of failure or weakness. It only means there was a lapse in coping patterns that need to be replaced with new, healthier options.

When someone you know starts using again, there are actions to take immediately for safety reasons, and ones that can happen later to encourage resilience.

Immediate actions can help and support the person’s safety and wellbeing. Those include:

  • Seek medical support if the person is experiencing unusual or significant symptoms. This includes calling 911 if it’s an emergency.
  • If you’re not nearby or available, find out if the person has local support, such as family and/or friends, who can help ensure the person is safe and not in immediate danger.
  • Contact the person’s designated recovery network. This could include the person’s doctor, family, or a 24-hour alcohol or drug information service. Ideally, this group is established and agreed upon beforehand.

Medium or long-term, use the 5-Step MHFA Action Plan (ALGEE) when you reach out to the person:

  • Action A: Approach, assess for risk of suicide or harm, and assist. Find a suitable and comfortable place for both parties and approach the person about concerns.
  • Action L: Listen nonjudgmentally to what the person has to say about the experience, including what led up to the relapse.
  • Action G: Give reassurance and information. Tell the person that using can be part of the recovery process – not the end of it. Reiterate that the person is not a failure or disappointment.
  • Action E: Encourage the person to continue seeking appropriate professional help. Provide support and resources that will offer hope and build confidence and resilience.
  • Action E: Encourage self-help and other support strategies. Reframe the experience as an opportunity to learn more about substance use challenges and the recovery process.

It takes time, energy and a mix of strategies for a person to recover from substance use challenges. How you react and support the person plays a big role in the process.

that people are more likely to recover if they have:

  • Stable family relationships.
  • Approval and sympathy expressed by their families.
  • Supportive friends.
  • Friends who don’t use alcohol or other drugs and who encourage the person not to use.
  • Peer support.

Recovering from mental health and substance challenges is hard enough for one person to manage. #BeTheDifference to people who can use support and encouragement by taking a MHFA course near you.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Services. (n.d.). SAMHSA’S Working Definition of Recovery. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Services.

Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA. National Council for Behavioral Health d/b/a National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

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