Believing that a friend is addicted to drugs or alcohol can generate feelings of uncertainty, worry, and anxiety.
Although you may question your suspicions and attribute your friend’s behavior to something else to ease the concern, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of substance use disorder and when to intervene.
This guide will help you with just that, as well as provide recommendations on how to assist your friend with finding a treatment facility and paying for substance use treatment.
Signs Your Friend May Have an Addiction
Unless you are a medical professional, you cannot diagnose your friend’s addiction. However, anyone can notice the signs that may indicate someone is abusing substances. Signs of substance use disorder can include:1
- Using more of substance or using for longer than they meant to.
- Repeated efforts to cut down or stop using the substance.
- Spending a significant amount of time obtaining, using, or recovering from using a substance.
- Experiencing cravings or a strong desire/urge to use a substance.
- Use resulting in an inability to fulfill obligations at school, home, or work.
- Continuing use of a substance despite having social or interpersonal problems caused or made worse by the continued use of a substance.
- Spending less time on important hobbies or interests because of substance use.
- Using in situations where it is physically hazardous, such as driving.
- Continuing to use the substance despite knowing that a physical or psychological problem is either caused or worsened by it.
There can be other signs that a person is using substances, too. For example, sometimes substance use disorders are accompanied by changes in a person’s appearance or hygiene, such as unexplained changes in weight gain or loss. Regular use of alcohol or drugs may also be characterized by unpredictable mood swings.1 Please note, though, that seeing these behaviors, or those above, in a person does not mean that they are using drugs or alcohol.
Some of these behaviors can be the result of stress, anxiety, depression, medical issues, or other personal issues a person may be experiencing. It can also be difficult to determine whether some of these symptoms exist if you don’t live with a person or spend significant amounts of time with them.
How to Help a Friend Stop Using Drugs
If you believe your friend is abusing a substance, the first thing to keep in mind is that you do not have the power to control another person’s use of drugs or alcohol: You cannot make your friend stop. However, you can support and encourage your friend to get help.
One ineffective strategy is trying to get the person to come clean through aggressively badgering them or trying to get them to confess. Remember that people who are using drugs or alcohol excessively may feel a great deal of shame and guilt and may not be honest with you about all their substance use or other behaviors associated with such abuse, e.g., stealing or lying to you. The most important thing is to try to get them linked with a professional who can help them.2
Although interventions, which have been popularized on various TV shows, make for great drama for viewers, they are not effective. A more effective approach may be to convince your friend to go to a doctor or speak to another professional.2
People tend to listen more to a healthcare professional than to family or friends.2 Other things that you can do to assist a friend who is using drugs include:
- Looking into treatment centers and programs to discuss with them.
- Offering to take them to an assessment with a provider.
- Offering to take care of their children while they seek treatment.
- Telling them how much courage they have if they reached out to you for help.
Supporting Vs. Enabling A Friend in Need
Be aware there is a fine line between supporting and enabling a person. Enabling means that you act in such a way to allow the person to continue engaging in addictive behaviors without consequences. Or you might allow your friend to lie to you, make excuses for them, and never confront them about their behaviors.3
Here are a few general ways you can avoid enabling a person who abuses drugs or alcohol:
- Don’t engage in behaviors such as lying to cover for the person.
- Don’t loan the person money to get drugs or alcohol.
- Don’t be afraid to speak your mind out of fear that they may use again, blow up at you, or leave.
- Seek your own support system, such as a group like Al-Anon, which is a 12-step group for people who have loved ones who abuse substances.
- Set boundaries with the person and let them know you will not loan them money, lie to cover for them, rescue them from legal consequences, or allow them to be aggressive or rude to you.
What to Do if a Friend Asks for Help Finding Treatment
Many treatment options are available for a person in need of help for a substance use disorder. You can help your friend by:2
- Calling treatment centers for them.
- Finding a doctor or other professional to evaluate them.
- Researching available treatment options.
- Continuing to encourage and verbally support them.
What if My Friend Can’t Afford Treatment?
Although paying for treatment is almost always a concern, many options are available. If your friend has health insurance, treatment may be covered. The best way to find out is for them to call their insurer and ask what is covered under their specific plan.
Some centers offer sliding scales, which are based on income. Some programs may offer ways to pay off the cost of treatment over several months, similar to a loan without interest. Other treatment centers offer those with low income either free or low-cost programs that are covered through state or local government funding.2
What to Do If Your Friend Relapses
Relapse can happen after a person has entered recovery. It’s not unusual, and you can be there to support your friend to keep trying while letting them know that many people must go to treatment more than once to maintain sobriety. Or, perhaps a different form of treatment may be needed, such as going to an inpatient program or a program that offers a different approach to treatment.2
It could be helpful to remind them that many healthcare concerns, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, might require repeated medication adjustments and different approaches before they are managed successfully: Addiction is much the same.2
Not every treatment approach works for everyone, and many people in long-term recovery require more than one treatment episode.2
Most importantly, let them know that relapse does not mean permanent failure for a future of recovery.
Supporting Your Friend’s Recovery
It can be hard to know what to do when you are supporting a friend who is trying to get sober. Some suggestions are:
- Let them know you want to help.
- Figure out how and where you can help. Don’t assume that they want or will accept your help.
- Let them know you are available to talk, but set boundaries on times and methods (texting, calling, dropping by).
- Encourage them to engage in a healthy lifestyle, especially in terms of medical care, sleep, eating, and exercise.
- Communicate with other supports, such as their doctor, sponsor, counselors, and others to help build a recovery network for them. You don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay.
- Learn about recovery. Read about recovery and perhaps join a support group for people who are helping someone with addiction.
- Once they have begun recovery, encourage them to pick up positive activities, hobbies, and goals, especially ones that were put aside when their substance use disorder took over.
- Encourage them to take responsibility and do not do for them what they can do for themselves.
- Don’t give up. Recovery is a journey and there are often setbacks before someone can sustain recovery.
- Encourage them to get professional help if they become suicidal, threaten to hurt others, or cannot manage their daily living needs.
- Take care of yourself. You cannot help another person if you are not caring for yourself.
Your friend has the ultimate responsibility to use or not use. You can also be a support person for them if they enter a situation where they know alcohol might be present, such as a family holiday gathering. You could offer to also abstain from drinking if they feel that this would help them to not use.2
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Arlington, VA, US: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to do if your adult friend or loved one has a problem with drugs.
- Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Social Work in Public Health 28(0), 194-205.