substance use counseling

Substance Use Counseling: How to Talk to Patients About SUD

In 2020 alone, there were 91,799 overdose deaths in the United States. This sobering statistic points to a need for treatment for individuals struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD).

However, talking to patients about substance use isn’t always easy. If you approach the topic incorrectly, it can lead to the person shutting down.

We understand the importance of having this conversation and want to help you. Keep reading to learn how to address SUD recovery with your patients.

Ask Permission

Before you dive into the topic of substance abuse, ask permission. This will help create a non-judgmental and supportive environment.

By seeking their consent, you demonstrate respect for their boundaries. You also empower them to be an active participant in the conversation.

Start by setting a comfortable tone, ensuring privacy, and finding an appropriate time to talk. Begin with a gentle introduction, letting them know that you would like to discuss something related to their health. Then ask if they are open to having a conversation about substance use or any challenges they might be facing.

Asking permission allows you to acknowledge that this is a sensitive subject. It also allows patients the opportunity to decline or postpone the discussion if they do not feel ready. It shows your willingness to meet them where they are in their journey toward recovery.

Remember, every individual’s readiness will vary. It’s crucial not to push or pressure anyone into sharing more than they are comfortable with at that moment. Respect their decision and reassure them that you are there whenever they feel ready or willing to have this conversation.

Establish Trust and Show Empathy

Establishing trust and showing empathy can help break down barriers. This helps to encourage open communication.

When engaging with patients, it is important to approach them with respect and genuine care. Listening attentively without interrupting allows the patient to feel heard and validated. Reflective listening techniques, such as paraphrasing, can also demonstrate empathy.

Acknowledging the challenges they may face while refraining from passing judgment is vital. Avoid using stigmatizing language or making assumptions about their behavior. Instead, focus on understanding their individual experiences, emotions, and needs.

Building trust requires consistency in words and actions. Be honest with your patients while maintaining confidentiality within legal boundaries. Assure them that their personal information will remain private, fostering a safe space for disclosure.

Empathy plays a significant role in establishing trust as well. Show compassion by validating their feelings of shame or guilt without enabling harmful behaviors. Recognize that recovery is a complex journey requiring support rather than blame.

Provide Options

When talking to patients about substance use disorder (SUD), providing them with options is crucial. Remember, every individual is different. What works for one person may not work for another.

Offering a range of options allows patients to choose the most comfortable and empowering path.


One option could be medication-assisted treatment (MAT). This combines medications like buprenorphine with counseling and behavioral therapies. This approach can help manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings while addressing underlying issues.

Outpatient Treatment and Support Groups

Another option is outpatient counseling. Here individuals attend regular therapy and group sessions to address their SUD. This can be an effective choice for those with a strong home support system and who are motivated to make positive changes.

Support groups also provide valuable options for peer support and accountability. Common ones include Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Residential Treatment

For some patients, residential treatment programs may offer the structure and intensive support they need. These programs provide 24/7 care in a safe environment where individuals can focus solely on their recovery.

Normalize the Conversation

Talking about substance use disorders (SUD) can be uncomfortable and stigmatizing for both patients and healthcare providers. However, it is crucial to normalize these conversations. By normalizing the conversation around SUD, we can reduce stigma and increase the likelihood that patients will seek help.

Avoid Labels

One way to normalize the conversation is by using inclusive language. Avoid labeling patients as “addicts” as these terms carry negative connotations and perpetuate stereotypes. Instead, use person-first language that emphasizes their humanity over their condition.

Recognize It’s a Common Health Issue

Another way to normalize the conversation is by recognizing that SUDs are a common health issue affecting people from all walks of life. By acknowledging this fact, we can convey to patients that they are not alone in their struggles and that seeking help is a brave step toward recovery.

Share Stories

Additionally, sharing stories of successful recovery journeys can help break down barriers and encourage open dialogue about SUDs. When patients hear stories of others who have overcome addiction, it gives them hope and shows them that recovery is possible.

Create a Comfortable Atmosphere

Normalizing the conversation also involves creating an atmosphere where patients feel comfortable discussing their substance use openly without fear of judgment or reprisal. This requires healthcare providers to actively listen with empathy and compassion, offering support rather than condemnation.

Watch Your Body Language

When engaging in conversations with patients about substance use disorder (SUD), it’s important to be mindful of your body language. Non-verbal cues can communicate a lot. They can either enhance or hinder the therapeutic environment you’re trying to create.

Maintain Good Eye Contact

First and foremost, maintain good eye contact. This shows that you are present and attentive.

However, be careful not to stare intently at the patient. This may come across as confrontational or judgmental. Instead, opt for a warm and empathetic gaze.

Be Careful of Your Facial Expressions

Pay attention to your facial expressions. A neutral expression conveys openness.

However, frowning or furrowing your brows might give off an unintended negative impression. Smile genuinely when appropriate – it can help put patients at ease.

Posture Matters

Your posture also matters!

Sit comfortably but avoid slouching or crossing your arms. These positions might convey disinterest or defensiveness. Leaning slightly forward demonstrates active engagement in the conversation.

Consider mirroring the patient’s body language within reason. Subtly matching their gestures and movements can foster rapport and create a sense of connection.

Talk to Your Patient About Substance Use Counseling

Having conversations about substance abuse isn’t always easy. However, talking to your patient about substance use counseling could end up saving their life. Take the time to practice these conversations and ensure you’re approaching it from a good perspective.

Are you looking for a facility to refer your patients to? Learn more about our admissions and how we can help today.

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