‘Ice in the Family’: Exploring the experiences of close family members when another family member is using methamphetamine. A longitudinal qualitative study

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Douglas Greg Gordon
Kylie Russell
Tracey Coventry


methamphetamine, family, qualitative, longitudinal, phenomenology, stimulant


Objective: To explore the experiences of close family members when another family member is using methamphetamine and how the family member responds over time.

Background: Methamphetamine use has widespread implications and harms for both people who use the drug and those that live with them. While there is a significant representation in the literature relating to family members of people who use drugs or alcohol, there are limited studies specifically considering family members experiences of methamphetamine use. Families have been shown to have both positive and negative impacts on people using drugs, but less is known on the impact on the family members themselves.

Study design and methods: Multiple semistructured qualitative interviews were conducted with 11 families (17 individual participants) from regional and metropolitan Western Australia over a 12-month period. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis was used in data collection and analysis.

Results: Four main themes were identified: 1. The New Lifeguard describes family members’ unplanned insertion into a new role and their rapidly changing experience of the person using methamphetamine. 2. Hit by the Wave demonstrates participants’ experience of repeated and unpredictable impacts on their lives. 3. Life in the Ocean describes the groundlessness associated with changes to goals and family structure. 4. Learning to Surf illuminates the changing strategies employed over time, moving away from trying to fix the person, to participants managing their own wellbeing.

Discussion: This study identified common aspects within the lived experience of close family members of people using methamphetamine and ascertained a commonality in the process of this experience. Significant impacts to all areas of life were reported, and distress was fluctuating and unpredictable in line with the cyclical nature of the drug use. Participant responses to these changes varied over time between resentment and trying to fix things, and acceptance and resilience, while gaining or maintaining like-minded supports.

Conclusion: Understanding the issues faced by families around this unique drug is vital in providing informed interventions for this group. Family members experience a broad range of financial, social and health impacts and harms over a protracted length of time. They are often not the focus of available support and in adapting to these issues, will themselves seek support away from treatment services for the person using methamphetamine.

Implications for practice: Understanding the complex journey of families has a broad range of implications (and opportunities) for a variety of areas such as criminal justice, family support and child protection. There is an opportunity for these areas to consider broader and more specific supports and approaches, and to develop more appropriate, bespoke, and inclusive treatment for families of people using methamphetamine.

What is already known about the topic?

  • Methamphetamine is recognised worldwide as a harmful drug with few effective treatments for methamphetamine dependence.

  • Few studies exist exploring the specific impact of methamphetamine on family members.

  • Fewer studies explore the experiences over time.

What this paper adds:

  • Family members with a relative who is using methamphetamine experience a range of harms in many areas of their lives.

  • The impact of methamphetamine use is unpredictable and takes place over long periods of time, affecting both individual family members and impacting on the overall structure of the family unit.

  • Families and family members adapt their approach over time, from attempting to fix the situation, to stepping back and seeking support from others who they perceive to be in similar circumstances.

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