How to Help Someone with a Drug Addiction
Last Updated: November 3, 2023
Knowing how to help someone with a drug addiction isn’t always easy, but a little compassion, education and understanding can go a long way.
When someone lives with an addiction, they will continue to use drugs and/or alcohol, even when it leads to serious consequences. Repeated drug use causes lasting changes in the brain, making it extremely difficult to stop using without professional intervention. Unfortunately, a person who lives with an addiction may resist seeking treatment or even deny having a problem with drugs or alcohol. Learning how to help someone with a drug addiction can allow you to support them in their journey toward recovery.
Before you have a conversation to help someone who is using substances, it is beneficial to understand the nature of addiction. When someone develops a drug addiction, they are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, which is the clinical term for an addiction. A substance use disorder is a legitimate medical condition that leads to compulsive drug seeking.
Experts label addiction as both a brain disorder and a mental illness. Drugs interfere with the way nerve cells communicate, which leads to abnormal messages being sent within the brain. Over time, drug use changes the brain in significant ways. For instance, drugs boost levels of the brain chemical dopamine, which results in feelings of intense pleasure. Once a person becomes addicted, brain changes from elevated dopamine levels can make it difficult for them to obtain pleasure from anything besides drugs.
Because it causes changes in the brain that make it difficult to exert self-control and stop using drugs, addiction is classified as a medical condition. Like any other health problem, some people are at a greater risk of addiction than others. Experts typically agree that the risk for addiction is based upon an interaction of genes and their environment. For example, people are more likely to use drugs and experience brain changes leading to addiction when they have a genetic risk for addiction and poor home environment, a lack of parental supervision and easy access to drugs.
Signs of Drug Addiction
If a loved one has developed a drug addiction or a substance use disorder, they are likely to show some of the following signs:
- Continuing to use drugs, even though drug use is causing conflict in important relationships
- Using drugs to the point that they are unable to fulfill their duties at work
- Giving up other hobbies or interests because of drug use
- Being unable to stop using drugs, even if they express a desire to stop
- Spending significant amounts of time seeking out and using drugs
- Continuing drug use, even when it makes a physical or mental health problem worse
- Developing a tolerance for the drug so that larger quantities are needed to achieve the desired “high”
- Using drugs simply to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms
- Suffering from intense drug cravings
- Using drugs in dangerous situations, such as driving while under the influence
The signs above suggest that drug use has become compulsive and a person is using despite significant consequences.
Tips for Helping an Addicted Person
If you’d like to have a conversation with your loved one who has an addiction, or you’d like to offer them some sort of help, it’s important to do so in an effective way.
Education is the first step toward supporting someone with an addiction. It is easy to become angry with someone who is using drugs because their behavior can become irrational and unpredictable. When you educate yourself on the nature of addiction, you’ll better understand what the person is going through. This can help you be compassionate toward them rather than coming across as angry when you attempt to offer help.
Don’t expect a conversation with someone who is addicted to go perfectly. They may be struggling with their own shame, guilt or denial, which can lead them to come across as defensive during the conversation. You may not break through to them the first time, and it might require several conversations before they are willing to open up to you or accept your offer of help.
Even if an addicted person is not willing to talk or accept help, it is beneficial if they know they can count on you for support. You might say something like, “I am here if you need to talk,” or, “I will support you in entering treatment.”
Maintain Realistic Expectations
Addiction is a treatable condition, but treatment is not a cure for addiction. For some people, relapse is a normal part of the addiction recovery process. This means that you must have realistic expectations for your loved one. They might occasionally slip up, even if they are engaged in treatment.
Having a conversation with someone who is addicted to drugs can be frustrating, but discussions are easier if you have some compassion. Keep in mind that a person living with a substance use disorder is struggling with a legitimate mental health condition, and they are probably having even more difficulty with the conversation than you are. Understand that they are struggling, and if they become argumentative, you should see it as a sign of their internal struggle rather than taking it personally.
Encourage Them To Seek Treatment
Researchers have extensively studied addiction treatment modalities to determine what sort of treatment is effective for people with addictions. They have concluded that addiction can be treated, so people can stop using drugs and lead fulfilling lives. If a loved one is living with an addiction, the best thing you can do is encourage them to seek treatment. Communicate to them that treatment has worked for many people and can also work for them.
Support Their Recovery
If a friend or family member is in recovery, you can support them in various ways. First, you can simply be available to listen or offer a word of encouragement when they are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing triggers for drug use. You can also offer to take them to appointments or participate in sober activities with them. Finally, you can show support by respecting their boundaries, such as honoring their decision not to attend family parties where alcohol may be served or respecting that they may need additional time and space for self-care.
Take Care of Yourself
Having a loved one who has an addiction can take its toll on friends and family members. If the person refuses to go to treatment or they experience a difficult relapse, you are likely to feel stress and anxiety yourself. Ultimately, you must remember to care for yourself so your well-being does not suffer.
This means taking time to do things you enjoy, eat a healthy diet, and incorporate rest and relaxation into your life. You may also have to learn to set boundaries between yourself and your loved one if they do not agree to accept treatment.
Resources for Friends and Families
Family members and friends of a person with an addiction may also require outside services. If you’re having difficulty figuring out how to help someone with a drug addiction, it might be time to seek out resources. Local support groups and family counseling services can help you develop coping skills. You may also benefit from reaching out to a professional interventionist who can help you arrange a family meeting to encourage your loved one to seek treatment.
How to Talk to a Loved One About Addiction
When you’re ready to approach your loved one about your concerns, there are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind. You should:
- Make it clear that you are offering support, not judgment.
- Come to the table with an action plan, such as a list of places your loved one could go for treatment.
- Choose to have the conversation when you’re both calm and at a time when your loved one is not under the influence.
- Be prepared to share specific concerns, such as behavior changes or consequences you have noticed as a result of drug use.
Once you’re prepared to have a conversation, don’t:
- Argue with your loved one if they become oppositional or defensive.
- Blame them or call them derogatory names.
- Don’t feel the need to do all the talking.
- Do not force them to talk if they are not ready to have the conversation.
If they shut down, you can end the conversation with an open invitation to approach you when they’re ready.
Treatment for Substance Abuse
Ultimately, the goal of learning how to help someone with a drug addiction is to get them into treatment so they can recover. When a person with an addiction is ready to seek treatment, multiple options are available.
Inpatient or Outpatient Treatment
The two overarching categories of addiction rehab are inpatient and outpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment programs require patients to live onsite at a treatment program while receiving services. While in treatment, they’ll attend individual and group counseling, medical appointments, and may receive medications or recreational therapies. Inpatient treatment helps people to establish a period of sobriety while living away from triggers for drug use.
On the other hand, outpatient services occur within the community. They allow people to continue living at home and maintain their jobs while in recovery. Outpatient programs offer many of the same services that inpatient rehab centers provide without requiring patients to live onsite. Some people begin with an inpatient program and then transition into outpatient care, whereas others may begin with outpatient treatment, especially if they have the support to remain abstinent while living at home.
Regardless of whether a person begins with inpatient or outpatient rehab, it is not uncommon for patients to first complete medical detox before entering the next phase of recovery. Medical detox programs provide patients with around-the-clock care and medical support to keep them safe and comfortable as they go through withdrawal. Once a person has completed detox, they are prepared to participate in inpatient or outpatient services to help them overcome the underlying issues that led to addiction.
Regardless of whether a person is enrolled in outpatient or inpatient care, they will participate in therapy as a part of their treatment process. Most programs offer a combination of individual and group therapy services. Therapy aims to help people develop different thoughts and behaviors related to drug use. In group therapy sessions, people can also strengthen their social skills and receive support from others in recovery.
Substance Abuse Treatment at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper
If you are seeking treatment for yourself or a loved one, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper offers a full range of addiction treatment services. We provide comprehensive drug and alcohol rehab in South Jersey and are qualified to treat co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
Our full range of services includes medical detox, inpatient rehab, outpatient care and several levels of care in between. Our 90-bed inpatient facility offers a multitude of services, including individual and group therapy, medical support and case management. Amenities found at our rehab center include a fitness facility, yoga room, entertainment lounges and basketball and volleyball courts.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics.” July 2, 2018. Accessed June 3, 2022.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Introducing the Human Brain.” March 22, 2022. Accessed June 3, 2022.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is drug addiction?” July 13, 2020. Accessed June 3, 2022.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Can addiction be treated successfully?” March 22, 2022. Accessed June 3, 2022.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Resources for Families Coping with Menta[…]stance Use Disorders.” June 2, 2022. Accessed June 3, 2022.
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “Alcohol Use: Conversation Starters.” December 2, 2021. June 3, 2022.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.