A Guide for Helping a Friend with an Addiction
If you suspect that your friend has a drug or alcohol problem, it can be difficult to know how to help, especially if you’re not certain that they have an addiction. Keep reading our guide to learn more about the signs of addiction and discover how you can best support your friend’s recovery and well-being.
Signs Your Friend Might Have an Addiction
It might not be apparent that a person has an addiction, particularly because some people who abuse drugs and/or alcohol may be secretive about their behavior. If you don’t live with them, it can be even more challenging to identify certain signs and symptoms.
The American Psychiatric Association classifies addiction as a substance use disorder (SUD), which is a diagnosis given by a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed drug and alcohol counselor, or another qualified mental health professional.1
To this end, although you may have suspicions about your friend’s substance use, it is not your job to diagnose him or her. Leave that to the professionals.
However, it’s still helpful to know what drug or alcohol abuse may look like so that you can help guide your friend towards treatment or recovery if they are using. The signs of a substance use disorder can include:1
- Taking the substance in larger or more frequent doses than originally intended.
- Being unable to cut down use despite the person’s best efforts to do so.
- Spending a lot of time trying to obtain, use, and recover from the effects of the substance.
- Intense cravings (physical and/or psychological urges or desires) to use the drug.
- Failing to meet obligations at home, school, or work.
- Continuing substance use despite having social or interpersonal problems that are caused or worsened by substance use.
- Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.
- Using the substance in situations where it is physically dangerous to do so (i.e. driving or operating machinery).
- Continuing substance use despite knowing that the person has a persistent physical or psychological problem caused by substance use.
- Tolerance, meaning the person requires more of the substance to achieve previous results.
- Withdrawal, meaning the person experiences unpleasant symptoms when they try to stop using, which can lead to relapse.
The use of drugs or alcohol may also shift a person’s mental or emotional state. A few signs for these changes include:1
- Shifts in mood, such as heightened aggressiveness, irritability, or anxiety.
- Differences in personality and/or mood.
- Struggling to remember things.
- Tired more than normal or restlessness.
How to Help a Friend Addicted To Drugs
Although you may want to help your friend stop using drugs, there’s nothing you can do to make them stop. The choice to use drugs is their responsibility—your friend needs to want to stop using and get help.
Forcing the issue may only backfire; in fact, research has shown that interventions like you might see on TV are generally not successful.2
Instead, you might start by encouraging them to see a doctor. Your friend may feel safer in this setting because conversations with professionals are not usually as emotionally charged as those with friends or family.2
In addition, you might consider other creative options such as:
- Researching available treatment options and presenting a list to your friend.
- Offering assistance with potential treatment barriers, such as helping them arrange childcare or transportation to and from the treatment center.
- Educating yourself about how treatment works so you can ease their fears and discuss potential objections to treatment.
- Offering support and letting them know that you will provide as much assistance as possible to help them start the path to recovery.
Supporting Vs. Enabling A Friend in Need
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between supporting versus enabling a friend with an addiction. When you enable your friend, chances are you are helping him or her avoid the consequences of their substance abuse.3 Without consequences from their substance use habits, the less likely they may be willing to make a move toward recovery.
Here are a handful of examples of enabling behavior:
- Don’t lie to cover for your friend, or other similar behaviors that allow him or her to escape the consequences of their actions.
- Avoid giving or loaning your friend money for substances.
- Speak up regarding his or her substance use.
- Make sure to take care of yourself. Groups like Al-Anon, a 12-step group for people who have loved ones who abuse substances, can offer you the support you may need.
- Establish clear boundaries with your friend and make it clear that you will not loan them money or lie for them, if you have done so in the past.
Recognizing these behaviors and being honest with yourself is one of the best ways to avoid enabling your friend. You need to allow them to accept the consequences for their actions and behaviors, even if it means that they hit rock bottom.
If you’re always there to bail them out, they might come to rely upon you as a crutch and think they can get away with destructive behaviors.
What to Do if a Friend Asks for Help Finding Treatment
If your friend says they want help finding treatment, there are several steps you can take to help.
You can provide support and encouragement. Let them know that it takes a lot of courage to admit the need for help and that you will stand by them every step of the way. One way you can do this is by helping them find a physician or call local doctors to see if they work with people who have addictions. 2
In that same vein, you can assist them in a search for a licensed mental health clinician who specializes in addiction. You can also get in touch with your friend’s insurance company to ask for referrals.2
You could also do research to help them find a treatment program. Treatment programs can be found through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s online database If you’re not sure what to look for, you might start by considering factors such as cost, types of treatments offered, location, program intensity (such as whether it’s inpatient or outpatient), and whether they accept your friend’s insurance.
What if My Friend Can’t Afford Treatment?
Entering treatment is one of the most important decisions your friend can make, and you can’t put a price on sobriety. However, if your friend is worried about the cost of treatment, know that there are many payment options. Many insurance plans cover at least part of the costs of treatment; some cover all of the costs.
You can call your friend’s insurance carrier and check what types of benefits are covered. If the person is a veteran, the Benefits.gov website can help determine whether your friend is covered for certain benefits; you can find drug and alcohol abuse facilities that may be covered under the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program.
Some programs offer loans or sliding scale payments that are usually based on a person’s ability to pay/income, and many programs also offer scholarships to help defray the costs of treatment. State-run programs may be more affordable than private programs, although they usually offer fewer amenities.
The cost of treatment also varies based on the type of treatment your friend chooses. Inpatient treatment may be more expensive because you also need to factor in the costs of a residential stay. Outpatient treatment may be more affordable, but it doesn’t offer the 24/7 supervision and monitoring many people require to start and maintain their recovery journey.
Oxford Treatment Center offers a wide range of treatments and accepts most insurance.
What To Do When Someone Relapses
It’s important to realize that addiction is a chronic disease, so relapse is a normal part of the recovery process. Relapse does not mean that treatment has been a failure; it just means that your friend might need an adjustment to the approach or type of treatment, such as longer stays, another type of therapy, or some other adjustment.4
Encourage your friend to keep trying and let them know that everyone in recovery goes through this process. Provide support and express nonjudgmental concern for their well-being (without enabling—your friend’s recovery is their responsibility, not yours).
How To Help Someone Recovering From Addiction
You can support your friend’s sobriety in a number of ways, such as:
- Encouraging them to attend a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, or a non-12-step group like SMART Recovery. You can even offer to attend meetings together.
- Inviting them to participate in activities that don’t involve drugs or alcohol, such as going to a movie or for a hike.
- Maintaining healthy boundaries and avoiding enabling behaviors.
- Setting an example for healthy living, which benefits both you and your friend. Realize that using drugs or alcohol around your friend can be a trigger for relapse. Make decisions wisely as to when to engage in these unhealthy behaviors, if at all, and avoid using in front of your friend, especially in the beginning phases of their recovery.
However you choose to support your friend on the pathway toward recovery, focus on the person, not the disease. You don’t need to talk about addiction and recovery all the time—try to spend time together having fun and enjoying each other’s company.
- 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.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. What is a relapse?