FAQs: How to Help Someone With Addiction
According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), almost 15% of individuals aged 12 and older had a substance use disorder (SUD) in the past year.1 This is almost 40 million people—a staggering number that reveals that addiction is a very prevalent, real problem.
Not only does addiction impact the people who are struggling, but it also has a dramatic effect on their loved ones. If your loved one is struggling with addiction, you might feel a mixture of anger, anxiety, and sadness, as well as confusion about what to do. This page includes frequently asked questions about addiction from people whose loved ones are struggling with substance use. It is intended to provide guidance and support as you navigate how to help a loved one with drug addiction.
If you are looking for additional resources, you can contact American Addiction Centers (AAC) at to speak to an admissions navigator. They can provide information on addiction, including treatment options. You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline, which offers confidential information and treatment referrals.
Helping a Loved One With Addiction Through Understanding
Before you can help someone with addiction, it’s helpful to have a better understanding of addiction itself.
How Can I Tell If My Loved One Is Addicted to Drugs or Alcohol?
Addiction looks different for everyone and there are several signs of addiction that can vary from person to person. Many times, people may notice a significant behavior, physical, and psychological change in their loved one, including:2
- Behavioral signs such as difficulties in their relationships, neglecting responsibilities, secretive behavior, and unexplained financial problems.
- Physical signs such as bloodshot eyes, runny nose, tremors, slurred speech, and weight loss.
- Psychological signs such as appearing anxious or paranoid without reason, periods of increased energy, mood swings, and unexplained change in personality.
Why Can’t They Just Quit?
As a friend or family member, it can feel very confusing and frustrating to watch someone close to you put alcohol or drug use above everything else, including your relationship. If, for example, your husband is struggling with alcohol use, you might feel that he loves alcohol more than you. From your perspective, it doesn’t make sense why he keeps choosing to drink when it is negatively impacting his life and yours.
While your loved one may have made the choice to start drinking alcohol or using a particular substance, as addiction develops, it feels much less like a choice over time and rather a necessity.
Research shows that addiction impacts the brain, particularly the brain’s “reward circuit.”3 This can flood the brain with dopamine, causing a person to feel euphoric.3 This surge of dopamine in the reward circuit can cause a person to have an extremely strong desire to repeat the experience, leading them to keep drinking alcohol or using a particular substance.3
The reward associated with substance use can be so powerful that it overtakes the feelings associated with healthy and pleasurable activities like eating, exercising, or even having sex. Over time, the substance may be the only vehicle for the brain to experience pleasure. And if a person is physically dependent, not using the substance can make them feel very ill and may even be medically dangerous. Alcohol withdrawal, for example, can be deadly.
While your loved one may have made the choice to start drinking alcohol or using a particular substance, as addiction develops, it feels much less like a choice over time and rather a necessity. This physical addiction is then further complicated by the psychological and social aspects of addiction, such as feeling a need to use to be comfortable in social situations or to cope with distressing experiences and feelings.
Addiction is a chronic disease that is treatable and not a moral failure.3 So even though it may seem to you that your loved one is deciding not to quit, their experience is much more complicated, and they likely need a comprehensive course of treatment to address their addiction.
How Can I Better Understand Addiction?
If you want to help a loved one with addiction, educating yourself on addiction can be an empowering first step. There are many online resources that may help, such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. If you prefer one-on-one guidance, consider scheduling an appointment with an addiction counselor or professional who can answer questions you have and help you learn how to support someone with addiction as well as help yourself.
It may also help you to sit in on an open Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting so you can get an inside look into the experiences of those struggling with addiction. The more you know, the more compassion you might feel and the better you will be at offering empathy and support.
What Do I Say to Someone Struggling With Addiction?
Talking to a loved one about their substance use can feel scary. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to what to say to someone struggling with addiction, these statements and questions may help you start a conversation:
- I’m here for you.
- How can I support you?
- I feel like you may be struggling.
- Do you feel like you’re struggling?
- Do you feel like substances are making your life unmanageable?
- I believe in you.
Keep in mind that how you deliver your message is important. Certain language can harm a person’s self-image and influence how they feel about their ability to abstain from substance use and achieve a life of recovery.4
For example, many people trying to help a loved one search for queries such as how to help a drug addict, not knowing that “drug addict” can be stigmatizing. When it comes to supporting someone with addiction, be mindful to avoid stigmatizing language that promotes hurtful stereotypes about addiction. For example, instead of saying “addict,” “junkie,” or “user,” you can say “a person with a substance use disorder” or “a person who misuses substances.”4 For a more comprehensive list, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
How to Help a Loved One with Drug Addiction
If you’re trying to learn more about how to help someone with addiction, you may be wondering about helping them get into treatment or find another kind of professional care. The following questions can help you learn more about supporting your loved one who struggles with substance use, whether they are ready for treatment or not.
Can I Make My Loved One Get Help?
It’s normal for you to be concerned about the safety of your loved one and those around them if they are struggling with addiction. You may be wondering if there is a way to force them to get help.
A 2015 review of statutes from July 2010 through October 2012 found that 33 states allow for civil commitment for substance misuse, meaning there may be some action you can take to make your loved one seek treatment.5 Typically, there would need to be some indication that your loved one is a danger to themselves or someone else. You can search for the relevant statutes in your state or contact a local treatment center that may be able to educate you on your rights where you live.
You might also think about holding an intervention. In this case, however, it is important to remember that you do not have the power to make someone want to change. Although the consequences you establish in the intervention may prove successful motivators in the short term, individuals who have an intrinsic motivation to get well are likely to be more successful long-term than those who are only going to treatment because they feel pressured.
Do Interventions Work?
If you want to help someone with drug addiction get treatment, you may be wondering if you should plan an intervention to get your loved one to stop using alcohol or drugs. While there is little data on the efficacy of an intervention, it may be able to unite family members who are dedicated to helping a loved one recover.
If you’re considering this as an option, you’ll need to make sure you’ve planned it well and have a specific desired outcome (e.g., your loved one agreeing to enter a treatment program). Conducting an intervention spontaneously isn’t ideal as a lack of preparedness combined with reactive communication could result in anger, hurt feelings, and no resolution or positive outcomes.
A lack of preparedness combined with reactive communication could result in anger, hurt feelings, and no resolution or positive outcomes.
It’s important to spend some time thinking about what you want to say and how you want to say it beforehand. In general, approaching your loved one in a manner that voices how much you care about them will likely be much more effective than approaching them with a mindset of punishment and condemnation.
Communicating your concerns with your loved one might help influence them to seek treatment. One study in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that involvement from concerned significant others had a positive impact on treatment engagement.6
If you have decided you would like to try an intervention, consider these tips when communicating your concerns and your desired changes:
- Make sure you are speaking from a place of concern and love rather than anger.
- Do your best to stay calm so that your emotions don’t escalate your loved one’s emotions.
- Be specific and focus on behaviors and consequences rather than making broad statements about their character.
- Try to be brief so you keep their attention and get your important points across.
How Can I Support Them if They Aren’t Ready for Treatment?
It can be especially challenging knowing how to help a loved one with addiction when they don’t want to go to treatment. If your loved one is resisting treatment, you may be feeling angry, hurt, helpless, and scared. Getting your own support may be helpful so that you can work through your emotions, enabling you to better handle the situations that arise, while attending to your own mental and physical health.
You can continue to express your care and concern and present your loved one with options for help—whether that is recommending treatment or offering to attend meetings with them. It will also be important to set boundaries about what you will and will no longer do for them while they continue to use. In other words, you can make sure that in the meantime you are not engaging in enabling behaviors.
How Can I Help a Loved One Find a Treatment Program That Is Right for Them?
If your loved one has decided they are ready to take the next step and enter a treatment program for their addiction, there are several things you can do to help them find an addiction treatment center that meets their needs. This may include:
- Contacting an addiction specialist or mental health professional in your area and get a recommendation.
- Scheduling an appointment with your loved one’s primary care physician or healthcare professional to discuss addiction treatment.
- Using The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) free tool FindTreatment.gov which has information on thousands of state-licensed providers specializing in treating substance use disorders.
- Checking your insurance provider’s website to learn more about addiction treatment.
Ideally, you will want to look for a program that not only specializes in the particular addiction with which your loved one is struggling but one that also addresses any co-occurring mental health issues or underlying problems that have fueled or exacerbated the addiction.
How Can I Best Support My Loved One While They Are in Treatment?
While your loved one is in treatment, you can continue to reinforce your care and support for them. Depending on the program they are in, you may be able to visit during certain times. You can affirm to them that you will be there for them when they get out. You could also assure them that you are getting the education and help you need while they are in treatment so that you can support them to the best of your ability as they navigate their recovery.
Helping Yourself, While Helping A Loved One with Addiction
Because everyone’s situation is different, there is no clear-cut guide on how to help someone with a drug addiction. Remember, supporting a loved one struggling with substance use can take a toll on your mental and physical well-being. Be sure to prioritize your own health as well.
Are There Ways to Help Me Deal With My Loved One’s Addiction?
It’s important that you don’t take your loved one’s addiction personally. Addiction is stronger than their willpower and can overtake all other priorities, including their relationships.
Because addiction is a family disease, self-care for people who love someone with an addiction is important. You can focus on taking great care of yourself so that you are in a healthy place to help your loved one and can model healthy behaviors. Focus on getting exercise (this is a great way to reduce stress), eating healthy, and getting adequate sleep.
Where Can I Go for Help?
There are support groups for family members and friends of addicted individuals. Whether it is alcohol or other drugs, you can find a group of people who understand and share the same struggles as you. Groups include Al-Anon and Nar-Anon.