How Can I Help a Friend with Addiction?
If you have a friend who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you are probably wondering how you can help. It’s difficult to see someone you care about go through the pain of addiction. You may worry about their safety, and you probably miss the friend you knew before the substance abuse took control of their life. You want to do something for your friend, but what?
The desire to help someone battling addiction is admirable and understandable. You know that your friend is a good person who is going through a hard time, but you may feel helpless watching as addiction dismantles their life. If you’re in this situation, here is practical advice to consider before you approach your friend about addiction.
Signs Your Friend May Be on Drugs
Broaching the topic of substance use—even for those who aren’t dealing with addiction—can be really sensitive and could cause your friend to become defensive or angry, especially if they are feeling judged. Before you talk with your friend about their drug or alcohol use, you should research signs of addiction and learn more about the disease to be prepared.
Moreover, each person will have a unique experience with substance use. Some may be able to hide their drug or alcohol use well while others may demonstrate more obvious symptoms of problematic alcohol abuse or drug use, like heroin addiction. Regardless, there are some general signs that could be indicators of addiction to alcohol or drugs.
The American Psychiatric Association states in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that one or more of the following behaviors over the course of a year may be a sign of addiction:
- Your friend seems unable to control their alcohol/drug use
- Your friend experiences strong cravings for alcohol/drugs
- Your friend spends a lot of time and resources getting or using alcohol/drugs
- Your friend continues to use alcohol/drugs despite negative consequences
- Your friend is having problems with work, school, friends, family, relationships, etc
- Your friend no longer does activities they used to enjoy and may spend more time with other people who use alcohol/drugs instead of their usual friends/social circles
- Your friend engages in high-risk behaviors (driving under the influence, engaging in unsafe sexual behavior, getting into physical fights or trouble with law enforcement)
- Your friend keeps using alcohol/drugs even while suffering health issues from them
- Your friend has become dependent on substance use and/or suffers withdrawal symptoms
- Your friend has tried and failed to stop using substances
You wouldn’t accuse a friend of having diabetes because you always see them drinking soda or eating fast food; likewise, you don’t just tell someone you think they have an addiction because you’ve seen them use drugs or alcohol. This is simply to say that you should educate yourself before trying to help. If your friend has demonstrated signs of addiction, you should then consider some possible reasons why this has happened.
What May Cause Their Addiction?
There is no singular cause of addiction but rather multiple factors like family history, personal experiences, biology, environment, and mental health can all contribute to the development of a substance use disorder. Below we’ll explain some common underlying causes of addiction.
People who grew up with a parent or family member who had a substance use disorder are at a greater risk of developing addiction later in life. To put this into perspective, a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that nearly 1 in 8 children in the U.S. live in a home where at least one parent abuses alcohol or drugs. Researchers are still exploring the familial inheritance of addiction. It is possible that seeing a family member abuse alcohol or drugs may teach a person to use substances as a way to cope with stress as a learned behavior. Another theory relates to abuse children may suffer from their relative who has a substance use disorder and that this could predispose them to develop addiction later in life as they cope with childhood traumas.
Each person’s unique experiences have shaped how they view themselves and the world they inhabit and could contribute to the development of addiction. For example, if your friend grew up in an abusive household, they may begin using substances to deal with the long-term effects of that trauma. Or if your friend dated someone with a substance abuse problem, they may have developed addiction because of their partner. These are only examples of personal experiences that could be part of the causes of your friend’s addiction.
Scientists who have been studying addiction are starting to find links between certain genetic characteristics and addiction. For example, studies have discovered that traces of an ancient retrovirus called HERV-K HML-2 (HK2) can affect the dopamine pathways in the brain. In people with addiction, their HK2 virus coding is uncommon, leading researchers to believe there may indeed be genetic predisposition to addiction, so it is possible that biological factors play a role in the development of addiction.
The environment in which a person grows up, lives, works, or spends time can be a factor in addiction. If your friend grew up in an environment where alcohol and/or drug use was common, they may have been predisposed to develop an unhealthy relationship with substances. If your friend works at a restaurant or bar, socializing with co-workers may involve alcohol at a higher rate than in other industries. Likewise, if your friend works in a high-stress job or if their job involves networking at dinners, parties or events, this could also put them at risk. Basically, if your friend has grown up in or currently lives or works in an environment where substance abuse is common, they may be more susceptible to addiction.
Another important factor in addiction relates to mental health, which is frequently an underlying cause of addiction. Perhaps you are aware that your friend has mental health issues they are trying to manage like anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, or an eating disorder. There is a high rate of overlap between mental health conditions and addiction as people attempt to “self-medicate” to deal with uncomfortable psychological symptoms. In other instances, you may be unaware that your friend is dealing with those a mental health condition if they have not told you or if they have not yet been diagnosed.
Trying to understand why your friend may be using alcohol or drugs in a problematic way could help you to be more effective and empathetic when you talk to them. Going into any talk with your friend about addiction requires patience, preparation, and compassion.
Diagnosing and Helping the Issue
You may not feel ready or able to actively help your friend with their addiction. If that is the case, it’s okay. You can always notify their family, partner, roommates, or close friends about your concerns to see if they are aware and willing to help. You can continue to support your friend through their addiction, but you need to ensure that you are setting safe boundaries physically and emotionally if you take this approach. Offering shelter, food, help with child or pet care, or supporting other basic needs can keep your friend and their loved ones temporarily safe until your friend is able to get the help they need for their addiction.
If you feel ready to help your friend with addiction, you should prepare yourself. Ensure that you are coming to your friend from a place of compassion and concern. Even if you are angry or have been hurt by your friend’s behavior, your goal is to get them the help they need to get better not to chastise or humiliate them. It is also entirely possible your friend does not recognize their substance use as problematic, or they could feel ashamed and be unable to acknowledge it. Keep these things in mind as you consider broaching the subject with them.
Remember that even when you approach a person addicted to substances with the best of intentions, they may not be ready to accept help. Don’t let the fear that they will react badly to your approach deter you from trying. Showing them you care is important! Here are some final tips for helping your friend with addiction:
- If you plan to talk to your friend about addiction, practice what you will say before you approach them.
- Go into any discussion with patience and calm rather than addressing addiction in the heat of the moment—i.e. don’t bring it up during an argument or when your friend is drunk or high.
- If you haven’t yet, you should consider reaching out to their family members and other close friends about supporting them to find treatment.
- Be prepared for your friend to withdraw from you, become defensive, or even blame you.
- Be ready to back off and protect your own safety if your friend becomes agitated, defensive, or aggressive.
- When you are proposing that your friend seek help or treatment for addiction—even if it’s not their first time going to rehab—be prepared with some treatment options or a plan. Try to give them a number to call or the name of a person who can help rather than just telling them they need help and leaving them with the work of finding treatment.
- You could also find local support groups for recovering addicts like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or other recovery support groups and reach out to them about meetings or tips to help your friend.
- Be ready for your friend to accept the offer of help! If you are able, commit to supporting them through treatment by being a point of contact or helping them in recovery after they seek treatment. Your friendship can be a positive force in their life.
- And most importantly, take care of yourself to ensure you’re coming to into the situation with a stable and healthy foundation to provide the best support for your friend—and to keep your well-being in check!