More than 21 million Americans suffer from substance use disorder. Of these, only about 11 percent receive the treatment they need for recovery. And about 20 percent of people dealing with addiction say they do not know where to find help.
Most people with addiction need some type of intervention and treatment to get better. But it can be difficult to know how to help someone with addiction. You may fear that lending assistance could make things worse, but (if you are reading this) you presumably have concern enough to want to take action.
The good news is that there are some basic steps you can take to help someone you know who is struggling with addiction. The information below will tell you what you need to know about addiction and how to confront it. Keep reading this addiction guide to find out how you can help your friend or loved one get the help they need.
What Is Addiction?
According to the National Institutes of Health, addiction “a chronic, relapsing disorder” similar to other diseases in that it disrupts healthy functions of the body. In general, it is characterized by the continued use of a substance despite negative social and physical consequences.
On a biological level, addiction happens in the brain. The basal ganglia plays an important role in initiating positive types of motivation and is integral in the formation of habits. It does this by triggering “reward responses” when we do something that is good for us, like eating or exercising.
Addiction involves the over-stimulation of this part of the brain. This means it prioritizes a substance or activity over other important aspects of life. It is why drug users may forgo meals or neglect responsibilities to get high.
Some drugs chemically diminish the sensitivity of this part of the brain. This further exacerbates the addictive tendencies by making it so that the only reward response comes from the substance.
Environment and culture play a huge role in how individuals respond to a substance or behavior. For instance, a lack of social support can lead to someone turning to drugs or alcohol. Likewise, traumatic experiences can affect an individual’s ability to cope, leading to addictive behaviors.
The most common substance addictions are to nicotine, alcohol, opioids (or other pain relievers), and cocaine. There has been a spike in heroin and fentanyl overdoses in recent years. This is in part related to the steady rise in pain medication addiction in the country.
People can become addicted to legal substances like caffeine or food. Some non-substance-related addictions include gambling, sex, technology, and even work.
Signs of Addiction
There are several stages or degrees of addiction. It often starts with experimentation which can give way to social or regular use.
The next stage involves problematic or risky behavior related to the addiction. The final stage is dependency. This means the person engages in use daily, or even several times a day, despite negative consequences.
Signs of addiction can vary between individuals and with the substance that is being abused. A commonality among all addictions is the inability of the individual to exercise self-control to either stop or reduce the use of the substance.
More subtle signs include seeking out social situations that permit or encourage the use of a substance or engagement with an activity. An alcoholic might only go to events where alcohol is served. Someone with a gambling addiction might plan family vacations around their ability to gamble.
Increased secrecy is another common sign of addiction. If your friend or loved one tries to conceal the frequency of a behavior or amount of a substance they consume, this could be an indication of addiction.
You also might see physical changes in someone who is experiencing addiction. Again, these vary depending on the condition. Changes in mood, behavior, and things like memory loss may be strong signs that a problem exists.
The good news is that, in most cases, addiction is preventable or treatable. The key is finding the right treatment regime that is suitable for the type of addiction.
How to Help Someone With Addiction
One of the best things you can do to help someone with an addiction is to encourage them to get help. Remember, most addiction recovery requires assistance. Seeking that out is almost always the most important step someone can take.
Addressing the issue may seem scary. The ideas and strategies below will prepare you so that you know how to help someone with an addiction.
Make Your Concerns Known
One of the most difficult steps to helping someone with an addiction is broaching the subject. It is also one of the most important things you can do.
If possible, ensure that your friend or loved one is sober when you speak to them. Be honest about your feelings and concerns, and use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For instance, tell them what you have noticed and the impacts as you perceive them.
This can keep the conversation from appearing accusatory. Regardless of their reaction, remain calm. Do not get angry or yell, even if the person denies what you are saying. Ultimately, the goal is not to “win them over” but to express to them why you are concerned for their health and wellbeing.
If a serious conversation does not motivate them to get help, interventions can be effective. These usually involve a group of friends and family, anyone impacted by the person’s addiction. Such meetings are usually supervised by an addiction counselor or specialist.
Interventions can be exceptionally motivating to the addicted person. This is in part because boundaries are set (see more about this below) about what will happen if they refuse to go.
Have Information and Resources Available
While your main role is to encourage the addicted person to find help, and have relevant information available for them. This might include various community or clinical resources, as well as treatment options available. Doing this work for them can make taking the first step much easier and more likely.
For things like tobacco use, you may be able to find resources online or over-the-counter medications to help them quit. But most addictions require serious, long-term rehabilitation and counseling. The type and intensity will vary depending on the type and severity of the addiction.
There are a lot of mental health and addiction recovery services available. Depending on where you live, there could be dozens or even hundreds of clinics to choose from.
Besides reading reviews online, get recommendations from respected sources. If you are unable or uncomfortable asking family or friends for recommendations, your family physician can advise you on how to find a reputable therapist.
One key feature to look for in a clinic is that treats mental health conditions as well as provides substance abuse rehabilitation. Often, substance abuse is the result of underlying conditions. These include things like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Addressing these may be necessary to effectively combat addiction.
Be Compassionate and Encouraging
Keep in mind that addiction is not a moral failing but rather a medical condition. Remember that your friend or loved one is ill and that they may not see circumstances the way you do.
This may be in part because alcohol or drugs impair brain function (even when the individual is sober for an interval). In general, this is why the individual prioritizes the substance over important aspects of his or her life, including job, personal health, or relationships.
One way to show encouragement and solidarity with the person is to commit to healthy living yourself. While you may not have an addiction, abstaining from alcohol, recreational drugs, or certain activities (like gambling) is an indicator that you are serious about helping them in recovery.
People dealing with addiction may exhibit behavior that is improper, frantic, and even criminal. They may lie, fail to show up at social events, or get arrested. It can be difficult to know how to handle the repercussions of substance abuse.
Failing to address these behaviors is a sign of codependency. This is a pattern of interactions that results from your trying to help the person who is addicted. In doing so, you inadvertently enable them to keep using. Good examples include paying court fines for a loved one arrested for driving under the influence or making excuses for a colleague when they miss work.
The most important thing you can do is to set boundaries and stand your ground. Especially if you live with the person, establishing clear expectations is not only pivotal for your mental well-being but your safety as well.
This might involve eliminating financial support that you suspect is going to purchase drugs or alcohol. It could mean telling them that if they continue to steal from you that they will no longer be able to live there.
It may be difficult, but you must stick to your guns. Otherwise, they will perceive these boundaries as merely empty threats.
It is also worth noting that such shifts could encourage the individual to seek treatment. For instance, not having disposable income to spend on drugs could cause them to reevaluate their options.
Note that helping pay for recovery services is not a sign of codependency or enabling––quite the opposite. If you are able and choose to do so, it is appropriate and may further encourage the individual to commit to recovery.
If you are dealing with someone who has been to treatment but has relapsed (possibly even more than once), they may view this as a “failure.” It is important that they understand that this is not the case.
Recovery is an ongoing, active enterprise. While the risk of relapse may vary from person to person, no one is “cured” by going to rehab.
Remind them that if the treatment did not work in the past, then they might try a different approach. Perhaps they have not been treated for an underlying mental disorder, which is the root of the addictive behaviors.
Also, there are medical aids that can help manage cravings. There is a common misconception that such drugs are only slightly better than illicit ones. On the contrary: things like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are evidence-based drugs that can go a long way to helping someone with severe physical addiction to a substance.
Seek Support for Yourself
Watching someone, you care about deal with addiction can be very difficult. It most likely causes a lot of stress that can impact you mentally and physically.
That is why you must take care of yourself as well. This could mean employing some self-care practices, like meditation or ensuring you get enough sleep and exercise.
There also are support groups for relatives and friends of people suffering from addiction. These can be a great resource, both in terms of advice and for camaraderie––being around people who are going through the same things you are.
Finally, seeking therapy yourself can be both cathartic and instructive. Be sure to find a counselor who specializes in treating friends or family members of someone dealing with addiction.
Find Addiction Recovery Today
Now that you know how to help someone with addiction, you can begin taking steps to get them the assistance they need. Remember that it is not your role to “fix” everything but to be a compassionate yet firm source of support and guidance.
At Beat Addiction Recovery, we offer a comprehensive medication-assisted treatment that incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy as well as peer support. Our team can provide all the support and assistance necessary for helping someone with an addiction. Reach out to us today to schedule an appointment or to learn more about our services.