How Families Can Support Students

Be sure the check out the Office of the Dean of Student’s Parent Handbook for Talking with College Students About Alcohol for more information. 

What are the signs that my student may have a problem with substance use? 

If you are or begin to notice that your student’s substance use is causing problems in other areas of their life, then you are probably not overreacting. While every situation and person are unique, when a person’s substance use starts to impact their work, education, physical health, mental health, family, finances, relationships, social functioning, self-esteem, or self-respect, it is a serious sign that they may have a problem with substance use. Learn more about how to recognize when a loved one’s substance use is becoming concerning. 

What can I do if I suspect my student has a problem with substance use? 

  • Learn more about the signs and symptoms of substance use.
  • Observe your student closely over several days to help you clarify and better understand what leads you to think there may be a problem. 
  • Share your observations with other trusted people to determine if others are observing similar behaviors by the student. These trusted people may be helpful support if you decide your student has a problem with substance use. 
  • Consider contacting a substance use professional, mental health professional, physician, clergy, or other helping professional. University Counseling Services has specialists available for help with supporting a UO student with substance use concerns. Support can include discussing ways for starting conversations with the student, how to locate resources, and how to support student as their use continues or escalates. Counseling Services does not provide confidential information about UO students access to our services.

Why is it important to act early if you have concerns about your student’s substance use?

Popular culture, such as books and movies, often tell stories of people who “hit rock bottom” before they are ready to be helped. This “rock bottom” myth is inaccurate and potentially harmful. There is absolutely no reason a person needs to “hit rock bottom” before they can address their concerns. Research shows that early detection and action are significantly more effective than waiting for someone to “bottom out.” Early identification of a substance use concern can allow for more options for students. Some students may be able to cut back to a healthier level of substance use if they are able to make changes early enough. Treatment in the early stages of a substance use disorder is likely to be less intense, less disruptive, and cause less anxiety. Early detection and action are can also lead to fewer consequences for family members and other loved ones. It is important to remember that it is never too early to seek help. 

If I have a concern about their substance use, how should I talk with my student about it? 

It is normal to be nervous about having a conversation with your student about substance use. Some people worry that bringing up the topic may lead their student to take more drastic action 
(drop out of school, leave home, hide their substance use, or retaliate against their loved ones). However, these conversations can actually be very productive and lead to change. It is possible that the behavioral changes you’ve noticed have not been visible or noticeable to your student. Sometimes, an outside perspective from a trusted and empathic loved one can be helpful for students. Below are a few tips for having a conversation with your student, and also remember that specialists at the counseling center are available to speak with you about preparing for a conversation with your student about substance use.  

Tips for having a discussion about substance use:

  • Don’t begin a conversation when either you or your student are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Choose a time and place to talk that is private and allows you to speak for more than a few minutes.
  • Be sure to emphasize how much you care about your student and that you are concerned about their wellbeing. 
  • Resist the temptation to lecture your student. Your goal should be to create a two-way dialogue that allows your student to equally participate in the conversation.
  • Remember that your goal is to share what you’ve observed, not to convince your student that they have a problem. Also, resist the temptation to speculate or explore their motives. Sticking to sharing your observation will decrease the likelihood that your student will feel attacked about become defensive. 
  • Be intentional about keeping your expectations realistic. It is unlikely that there will be a dramatic shift after only one conversation. That’s ok. Opening up a dialogue with your is a key first step. This conversation may be the first time your student has thought about their substance, and it may give them important things to think about as they decide if and how they’d like to change. 

What should I do in a substance-related emergency?

Does your loved one have any of the following symptoms? If so, call 911 or other emergency services immediately.

  • Lost consciousness after taking drugs.
  • Became unconscious after drinking alcohol, especially if five or more drinks were consumed in a short period of time.
  • Had a seizure.
  • Had been drinking and is seriously considering suicide.
  • Has a history of heavy drinking and has severe withdrawal symptoms, such as confusion and severe trembling. Severe withdrawal symptoms, such as delirium tremens (DTs), can cause death.