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I'm concerned about my partner's alcohol use. How do I know if his drinking is a problem?

Misuse of alcohol is one of the biggest health concerns that affects our society. Although most Canadians drink and enjoy alcohol in moderation with minimal harm, approximately 10 per cent engage in hazardous drinking, or alcohol use that leads to some negative impact on health, social relationships or work function.

For many people, hazardous alcohol use can be a symptom of other underlying difficulties. Some find that it is a way to cope with stress in their life. Others find it helps with mood issues. Alcohol is actually the most common self-medication for depression and anxiety. This is not surprising given that, on a short-term basis, alcohol can effectively distract a person from stressors and reduce tension and anxiety. Unfortunately, in the long term, alcohol is a highly ineffective coping strategy as it teaches people to avoid directly dealing with stressors, worsens mood issues (alcohol has a depressant effect), and can significantly impact the quality of sleep.

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Be familiar with the guidelines on healthy alcohol use: Nine standard drinks per week for women, and 14 for men (a standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor).

As a general rule, alcohol use should not exceed two to three drinks a day, and there should be at least one or two alcohol free days a week. Keep in mind that certain individuals (such as pregnant women, those with certain physical or psychological health conditions, individuals taking particular medications, or those with a family history of alcohol abuse or dependence problems) should engage in even less – or in some cases zero – alcohol use.

Raising concerns about your partner's alcohol use can be a very difficult thing to do. You may want to start by expressing concern. You could say, "This is a difficult thing for me to bring up, but I am worried about your alcohol use and the effect on your health."

Be specific about the concerns you have (for example, "I notice that over the past few months you have been drinking more than you used to," or "I find your alcohol use is getting in the way of some of the things we used to do together.").

Remember not to blame. Take a solution-focused approach and ask, "What can I do to help?" Speaking to your family doctor can be helpful.

Information on alcohol guidelines as well as other useful resources are available at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health website (under Information about Drugs & Addiction) and

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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