How to Help a Friend Dealing with Substance Use Disorder

This article was written by James Malervy and published by RCA.


Trying to help a friend with a substance use disorder can be challenging. It’s often difficult to initiate an effective conversation regarding their addiction and get them to open up to you.

While it may be difficult to find the right words to say and the right time to say them, it’s even more difficult having to watch them struggle. Substance use disorders are incredibly complex, and often worsen the longer they go on.

Learning how to offer support begins here, with the following tips:

Learn the Signs

Substance use disorders occur when an individual can no longer control their substance use. They become both psychologically and physiologically dependent on the substance in question and continue their use out of need rather than want.

Individuals with substance use disorders will exhibit a range of signs. Some of the most common signs include:

  • Exhibiting a lack of interest in regular activities, relationships, and self-care
  • Bloodshot eyes, pale skin tone, appearing fatigued
  • A change in behavior, such as becoming distant and an increased need for privacy
  • Difficulties and disinterest in work or school
  • Inability to manage finances, asking to borrow money or stealing money
  • Becoming defensive when asked about said behaviors or substance use

Plan for a Sober Discussion

Once you’ve made the decision to talk to your friend about their addiction, it’s important to have the conversation when they’re sober. If they’re under the influence, they likely won’t be as understanding. Even more importantly, you’ll want to talk to them in a quiet and neutral space where they’ll feel safe.

Give Them Examples

Using specific scenarios can help make your concerns clearer and more valid in your friend’s eyes.

For example, maybe there was a time when you and your friend went to a party together and they decided to use certain substances. Because of this, they may have put you in danger or you may have ended up becoming responsible for their safety, proving the negative consequences of their actions.

It’s also a good idea to discuss how their behavior has changed recently or tends to change while using a certain substance. Include what you like or enjoy about them when they’re sober and how that changes when they’re under the influence.

Be Supportive and Empathetic

The most important thing to understand about substance use disorders is that they are brain disorders. Your friend is not choosing to be this way — so don’t shame or blame them.

Instead, express your concern for their health and safety, and let them know that you want to be there for them and help them in any way that you can. Hear them out, and be ready for all kinds of reactions, but don’t take any bad reactions to heart.

You also don’t want to jump to any conclusions or become aggressive, as that’s the opposite of being empathetic and supportive.

Be Consistent and Set Boundaries

When having these conversations, it’s important to keep your message consistent. For instance, don’t talk about how your friend’s substance use disorder worries you and then turn around and watch them use substances.

You also need to keep in mind that addiction is something that can linger for a long time, and it can be difficult to navigate your friendship throughout this time. Therefore, you’ll want to express your feelings and set boundaries regarding your friendship and their substance use.

Boundaries with someone that has a substance use disorder can look like this:

  • Not being around them when they use substances or in places where substances are being passed around — such as a party, bar, etc.
  • Not letting them borrow money
  • Not lying for them when they get into trouble
  • Only agreeing to meet with them in neutral places (if they have a habit of stealing)

Remember, consistency is key. You don’t want to send mixed messages by letting certain boundaries slip — it won’t do you or your friend any good.

Encourage Treatment

You can’t lecture an addiction, so don’t bother hitting your friend over the head about the negative impacts of their disorder. Instead, come to the conversation prepared with positive facts about treatment.

Talk about what their life could be like without the substances, and offer to help them research their treatment options and speak with a rehab close to you. It’s also a good idea to bring along some community resources that they can hold onto and reassure them that they’re not alone.

Understand that it may take more than one of these conversations to get through to your friend, and that’s okay. Some conversations will go well and some may get heated — and that’s okay too.

The most important thing is showing that you have their best interests at heart, such as their long-term recovery and sobriety. Eventually, they’ll thank you for it.

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