When a family member misuses prescription drugs

Prescription drug misuse: A problem for the whole family

Nancy takes prescription pain medication for chronic pain.  She and her husband frequently have their children and grandchildren stay at their vacation house. After a weekend visit Nancy’s husband tells her that one of their teenage grandchildren may be abusing drugs.  What thoughts go through her mind?

Recognizing the problem

In April, 2011, the White House released a report to the public titled “Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis”. It described prescription drug abuse as the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem. In 2009 there were 9 million people who used prescription pain medication for a medical reason and 5.3 million people who used prescription pain medication for a nonmedical reason.

Who are these people and where are they getting the drugs?

Over 75% of the people who abused prescription pain medications obtained them (or took them) from someonewho had a legal prescription.  Unfortunately, children are among the abusers. Since 1991 the federal government has been monitoring drug use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. In 2010, over one in five 8th graders (21%), one out of every three 10th graders (37%), and almost half of all 12th graders (48%), reported using an illegal drug at least once in their lifetime.  After marijuana, prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications account for most of the top drugs abused by 12th graders.

An individual who is misusing prescription drugs often exhibits warning signs. Although the presence of one or more warning signs is not definite evidence of drug use, it’s important that family members recognize these warnings, and are aware of the possibility of a problem. Entire families or individual family members may ignore warning signs because of guilt, shame, or fear of having to deal with the problem. Ignoring or attempting to cover up the problem can create further anxiety and anger among family members.

Some warning signs of misuse of prescription drugs include the following:

  • Changes in physical appearance—weight loss, glassy or red eyes, pale complexion, bloated appearance, slurred speech
  • Changes in behavior at home—secretiveness, withdrawal from family activities, increase or decrease in appetite, alteration in sleep pattern
  • Changes in lifestyle— new friends, new style of dressing, spending or borrowing money
  • Changes in personality—moodiness, rebellious or destructive behavior, hyperactivity, preoccupation with death
  • Changes at work or school—frequent sick days, poor school attendance, falling grades, decreased work performance, and aggressive behavior

Talking about the problem

If an individual exhibits warning signs of misusing prescription drugs, it can be useful for the family to discuss their concerns with a doctor, counselor, or support group for families affected by drug abuse.

Voicing concerns to the family member who is suspected of taking drugs can be stressful, but it is essential. Hoping that the problem does not exist, or that things will get better in time, usually does not work. As time goes by, the problem can get worse. The best time to talk is when the individual is unlikely to be under the influence of drugs. Speak calmly and honestly, and express fears for their health and safety. While people can react to such open communication in different ways, family members should be prepared for the possibility that the individual will become angry and defensive, or deny drug use.

A physician or mental health counselor should be consulted about treatment resources.  They do exist and they can provide valuable treatment, but the family needs to work hard to advocate for and support their loved one.

Many Americans misuse prescription or illegal drugs. Unfortunately, after motor vehicle crashes, drug-induced deaths are the now the next most common reason for a fatal injury. And in some states, they outnumber motor vehicle deaths. For every person using drugs, there may be a spouse, parents, siblings, children, and other family members, who are living in the shadow of that person’s drug use who also need support.


Nancy has many questions.  The first thing that comes to her mind is that she stores her prescription pain medication in a kitchen cabinet over the sink.  She vows to immediately move it to a more secure and out-of-the way place. She has a sinking feeling in the bottom of her stomach as she wonders if being so casual about her medication has contributed to a young person’s misuse of drugs.