If a young person isn’t ready to talk – how would you open up the conversation?

You suspect someone is struggling with alcohol or drug addictions - but they aren’t talking about it. What’s the best way to engage them and build the necessary trust for them to feel safe enough to reach out for help? We've shared all you need to know here.
Helping Students with Addiction and Substance Use

You suspect someone is struggling with alcohol or drug addictions—the signs are all there—but they aren’t talking about it. What’s the best way to engage them and build the necessary trust for them to feel safe enough to reach out for help? 

It seems this is a scenario that is likely to come up, with a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggesting that only 3 in 10 students would be confident enough to disclose information about their drug use without fear of punishment. While 16% of students surveyed who used illegal drugs reported having scary experiences but didn’t go to the hospital or seek help. 

So how can we create a safe space for those students suffering in silence to open up and obtain the help and support they need?

It’s a subject discussed in our Addiction and Substance Use webinar. Paul Chambers, a Mental Health Advocate and Co-Founder of the Creative Mental Health Charity PoetsIN, and Simon Thomas, a former Blue Peter and Sky Sports presenter who has talked openly about his problems with alcohol, share their advice, gained from their lived experience of addiction and recovery as well as from mentoring.

We’ll cover:

Holding space

Paul, who has a wealth of experience mentoring in schools and prisons through his charity PoetsIN, finds the most effective way to get someone to open up is just to be there for them.

“I do have experience of this through mentoring and I suppose it’s just being there for someone,” he says. “Holding space for them at an agreed time. Whether they want to talk or not, you’re there…just hold space and be there time and time again. Talk about anything, and ultimately you build the trust.,” he says.

“It’s something my charity does. We’re all a lived experience team, and we will, without judgment, give people a place—whether that’s a group, one-to-one, anonymous, or whatever—where people can speak and nothing comes back to them.”

Build trust by sharing lived experiences

Paul also shares his own lived experiences with mentees, in an honest and open way.

“I’ll talk about my experiences. The bad mostly, but it’s not all bad memories. There’s some good things there as well some fun things – but I let them know ultimately how disruptive things were.”

“I’ve built the trust through sharing my lived experience. The trust grows, and then the subject will come to the forefront, and you can start tiptoeing around it – and then speaking to it more and then wrestling it to the ground and then coming out with some tools and ways to come out the other side of it. So that’s my experience.”

In the absence of a mentor with personal experience of addiction and recovery, there are plenty of resources available. There are books, such as Simon’s Love, Interrupted, and charities, such as PoetsIN, a lived experience team that can offer support. 

You can also direct young people to social media accounts dealing with addiction and sobriety. “There is such a growing community online,” says Simon, who recommends social media for those who want to begin the journey alone. “I follow loads of different accounts on Instagram that are talking about sobriety, and I find them so, so encouraging. There are far more people out there than I ever knew about, never dared to imagine, who are doing exactly the same thing.”

“Drink really wasn’t a part of my life until I went to university,” says Simon. “And then… it was like an alcoholic bomb going off.”

“It was like an alcoholic bomb went off”: Sharing the lasting disruption of alcohol

Alcohol and drug use can sometimes be normalized by young people in a university or college setting. It can feel as though everyone is doing it, so what’s the harm? It’s important to show young people how drug use and heavy drinking can lead to addiction and just how damaging those addictions can be—on campus and beyond.

“Drink really wasn’t a part of my life until I went to university,” says Simon. “And then… it was like an alcoholic bomb going off. You know, that I need to try and fit in. Freshers week, certainly when I was at university, was all about alcohol. Every single game, every single social function revolved around alcohol. And really after that, it was this long journey of alcohol playing an increasingly big part in my life. Bit by bit, year by year, it became more and more of a problem.”

Eventually, Simon’s heavy drinking led to addiction, destruction, and some very dark times. “It led me at least twice to a really dangerous place, where the darkness closed in heavily under the influence of alcohol,” he said.

Paul found that understanding addiction and how it worked helped him to beat it. “I’m a visual learner and I need to understand something to work my way around it,” he says. “For me – stick a label on it, look into it, and understand how to get around it. And then I tap into my obstinacy, the fear of being beaten by something.”

“By acknowledging it, you’re already part way there to reaching out,” says Paul.

“They have to be in control of their own journey.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to recovery. What works for one person will be different from what works for another. So, the support offered needs to adapt and evolve depending on the young person in question. For some, a 12-step program could turn their life around, but others may need to start their journey with the support of a buddy, a mentor, or an online community.

“I think Alcoholics Anonymous is brilliant, but, like anything, it doesn’t work for everybody,” says Simon. ”It’s not everybody’s forum in the same way that counseling isn’t for everybody and medication isn’t for everybody. We all have our own ways of working through stuff.”

Paul’s charity, PoetsIN, offers a range of different forms of support to enable people to take their path to recovery in a way that feels comfortable to them. “My charity has a buddy service that you can get help through. We have an online community that is safe and secure and a closed group that you can join on Facebook. We’ve got group activities, and we’ve got singular activities. Once you make that step to reaching out—if you don’t want to go the route of the 12-steps—you can come to someone like us, where, it’s almost like we hide the vegetables in the food—we give ways of managing. Cathartic and therapeutic ways that can get you out the other side. We saw it in prisons, we saw people manage addictions, we saw people manage rehabilitations, we saw people manage mental health, and it’s through communication, talking, and writing.”

For those who are not ready to involve someone else, there are also writing techniques that may help move them along the road to recovery. “By acknowledging it, you’re already halfway there to reaching out,” says Paul. “If you don’t want to involve someone else, I would always recommend using writing. I mean, it’s what my charity is kind of based on—journaling, free thought writing, using the worry diary to get to the root of your problems that are causing you to go down these routes.”

Unlock insights and empower your campus: Book Simon and Paul for your next event!

For more insights and advice, you can watch the webinar in full on demand. If you want to bring the power of Simon and Paul’s lived experiences to your campus, both are available to book for individual guest speaker events, workshops, and online webinars. For more information and help organizing, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team today.

Find out more about Simon’s journey in his book “Love, Interrupted”, which recounts, with searing honesty, the grief and loss he felt after the death of his wife Gemma, including his experiences with alcohol. It’s also available for bulk purchase; get in touch for your trade discount today.

Explore Paul’s creative mental health charity website at PoetsIN.com. It offers a wealth of information, advice, and downloadable resources.

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