February 1, 2017
HOW ADDICTION IMPACTS THE FAMILY
Addiction problems (which include problems with substances such as alcohol and drugs,
and also ‘behavioural addictions such as gambling) are highly prevalent in society, across
the world1. Although often thought of as a ‘first world’ set of problems, the World Health
Organization lists addiction problems as amongst the most serious issues affecting all low
and middle income countries.
But addiction problems do not occur in isolation: these problems develop and then are
maintained in people who live in a social context, and the most important aspect of that
social context is the family.
The family, then, can play a major role in both prevention and treatment; but it is more
complicated than that, as individual family members are also very frequently badly
affected by living with a relative with an addiction problem, and the family unit as a whole
is also often badly disrupted. As well as the stress of living with someone with an
addiction problem, alcohol, drug and gambling consumption are all strongly linked to
other problems such as domestic violence, homelessness and crime. As a result of all of
these problems, a significant number of close family members of people with alcohol and
drug problems are at risk themselves of experiencing a great deal of stress. I term such
people Affected Family Members (AFMs). It is important for society as a whole, and for
services that exist to help people in distress, to consider AFMs, for two important and
related reasons: first, family members in these circumstances show symptoms of stress
that merit help in their own right; and second, involvement of family members in the
treatment of their relatives with addiction problems can enhance positive outcomes for
the person with the addiction problem.
How big is the problem?
It is impossible to estimate the numbers of AFMs other than
by simply applying a multiplier to the estimated preva