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Assessing & Responding to Substance Use in Collaborative Practice

2022 is upon us and many committed to Dry January”, which is an emerging tradition of taking a month-long break from alcohol in an effort to hit the reset button. New Years resolutions are another popular avenue to reset substance use habits. Regardless of the method, many Canadians are entering another year with COVID-19 and taking stock of how it has affected their substance use.

At the beginning of the pandemic, mental health and substance use experts predicted that a “shadow pandemic” would accompany COVID-19 as the world struggled to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, and social isolation. Emerging data over the last year confirmed that for many Canadians, the pandemic has led to increased substance use as a coping strategy.

According to surveys collected by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, respondents reported more mental health symptoms and increased substance use since March 2020. Substance use concerns are greater among people who lives along; women in households with young children (< 13 years); people with a history of a substance use disorder; and people experiencing low-income or unemployed.

As divorce practitioners, we know that substance use is often cited as a contributing factor to divorce. Given this rise of substance use among Canadians throughout the pandemic, it is likely that we will see an increase amount of divorce cases involving substance use in 2022.

What can we do as Collaborative divorce practitioners to better support families impacted by substance use? Here are four ways a Collaborative team can begin addressing concerns related to substance abuse:

1. Ask about it.

In the past, we may have assumed that if substance use was a factor in the separation, our client would tell us.

Given the amount of stigma around substance use, many people do not feel comfortable raising the issue. A proactive screening process with new clients allows practitioners to identify substance use during the intake process, which allows for a comprehensive approach for support to be established at the outset. Integrate the following question into your initial meeting:

Was alcohol, substance use, or other addiction(s) a contributing factor to the separation or divorce?

2. Reduce stigma.

“We need to keep in mind that substance use disorders are a medical condition, deserving of care and treatment just like any other, and remain open-minded and not let our judgements or assumptions colour the way we think of someone. Everyone has a story, and for people experiencing substance-related harms, we know that their’s often includes trauma.” (Public Health Agency of Canada, May 2021)

Societal stigma about substance use is a significant barrier for clients; particularly when a parenting plan hangs in the balance.

The best way to reduce stigma is to convey our intention to provide the best care to our client:

It is important to know about substance use so that I can provide appropriate support and resources to you and your family; you deserve the best care throughout the divorce process.

3. Screen for Interpersonal Violence

Substance use is a significant risk factor for interpersonal violence. Throughout COVID-19, rates of interpersonal violence has increased dramatically.

Given this context, it is even more imperative that divorce practitioners integrate violence screening protocols into every case assessment.

SAFeR is an approach to decision-making in interpersonal violence-related family law matters, including a user-friendly screening tool for violence. These screening questions are designed to integrate into your intake process and ensures that you are asking the right questions to assess for interpersonal violence.

Legal Aid BC has fact sheets and a resource guide for family lawyers entitled Is Your Client Safe? and the federal government has created a course for family professionals entitled Family Violence and Family Law for Legal Advisors” as part of its free webinar series highlighting recent amendments to the Divorce Act.

4. Involve a Divorce Coach

For a client whom substance use is a contributing factor in the divorce, involving a Divorce Coach is invaluable. As trained mental health professionals, Divorce Coaches understand the complexities of substance use disorders and treatment options. Divorce Coaches also understand the impact on the individual and the family system, including children. This specialized knowledge informs how we approach Parenting Plans that centre the needs of the child or children. The addition of a neutral Child Specialist may also be helpful when substance use is an issue.

Families impacted by substance use have often experienced trauma. The divorce process may be experienced as an additional trauma for them. Divorce Coaches provide skilled, trauma-informed support throughout the process. Recommending the services of a Divorce Coach early in the divorce process means that the client will have adequate supports available to them from the outset.

Others on the Collaborative team can support the work of the mental health professionals by being informed of how to have a trauma-informed practice, referring to materials such as the Golden Eagle Rising Society’s “Trauma-Informed Legal Practice Toolkit,” the creation of which was led by lawyer Myrna McCallum.

These are the initial steps of how Collaborative team members can get started working with families impacted by substance use. Once clients are in the process and substance use concerns have been identified, the mental health professionals, especially Divorce Coaches, can suggest specific ways to help families based on their unique concerns and needs. The Collaborative Process is a client-centred option that allows for innovative, creative, flexible solutions that meet the needs of families impacted by substance use.


Kelsey Antifaeff is a Registered Clinical Social Worker, Registered Clinical Counsellor & graduate of a Clinical Fellowship in Addictions with the BC Centre on Substance Use. Supporting families impacted by substance use is one of her specialties in her work as a Divorce Coach and Child Specialist.


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