Peer-led group helps family members when supporting a loved one experiencing addiction

13 Sep 2023

A new paper has found that the BreakThrough peer-led group is an effective support for a family member who has a loved one experiencing addiction.


Addiction is the world’s most stigmatised health condition. However, stigma and misunderstanding don’t just affect the people experiencing addiction. These issues also affect family members who support a loved one experiencing addiction.

Family members can often face multiple challenges relating to unfavourable attitudes from the public about their family member's substance use, which can lead to a lower sense of control and lower self-esteem. Often, family members become socially isolated and struggle to find adequate support for themselves and the family member they are supporting.

With these issues in mind, a recent study explored the experiences of family members attending BreakThrough: a fortnightly, peer-led, online group education program designed to help people deal with a family member's substance use. The program teaches communication, coping and self-care strategies to better manage their situation while also linking participants with relevant supports.

Importantly, participants described three key benefits from attending the program:

  1. The benefits of understanding the truth about addiction

Prior to the program, participants often felt they did not possess the skills or knowledge to respond effectively to, or cope with, their experiences. By learning about addiction, participants were better able to make sense of their experiences.

As one participant described: “… it helped me understand what addiction is, how it impacts the brain and how powerful it is and how it’s such a difficult thing to overcome.”

  1. Learning to step back and accept the situation

The program also helped participants reflect critically on their previous attempts to control and fix their relative’s substance use. These attempts often resulted in distress, guilt, and conflict for themselves and their family.

Instead, participants learned to establish boundaries, accept their limited control over what

happens, and allow their relative to bear the consequences for their actions.

“Before I would be angry, accusatory, blaming […] I was all over the place,” said another participant. “I really didn’t know honestly how to deal with him […] so for me BreakThrough gave me clearer strategies […] you really have to change the way you think.”

  1. A sense of validation

Finally, the program helped validate participants’ feelings and beliefs about addiction, which in turn helped them challenge their own experiences of stigma.

One participant told researchers: “I felt very alone in what I was going through and ashamed … BreakThrough really made me become more open and honest and share with people about what was happening. So I don’t feel ashamed anymore.”

Another said: “I think, from a family member’s perspective, it was good to hear that it was quite normal for families to say what have we done wrong? But it’s actually not what we’ve done wrong.”

By destigmatising addiction, teaching practical skills and strategies, and shifting beliefs and approaches when supporting loved ones, peer-led groups can be effective support for a family member who has a loved one experiencing addiction. It can also help to increase awareness and understanding about addiction as an often misunderstood health condition.