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How to Help Someone With Drug Addiction

Helping someone with addiction often begins with understanding the intricacies of addiction. By researching what addiction is like, the effects of particular drugs, and how treatment can help, you’ll be well equipped to have a conversation with them. Remember to approach them with love, not judgment.

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To help someone with drug addiction, educate yourself on the specifics of addiction, help them connect with a treatment program, and support them as they enter addiction care.

The Signs & Symptoms of Addiction 

If you think someone you love may be abusing drugs, there are certain things to look for. 

Drug addiction can come with a wide variety of signs and symptoms. The types of drugs a person abuses, how long they’ve been taking them, how much they generally take, and an individual’s unique body and mind can all change how they’re affected. 

With that said, there are some common signs of addiction that can broadly be split into two groups: psychological symptoms and physical symptoms.

Psychological Symptoms

Drug addiction can fundamentally change the way a person feels and acts. Some common psychological symptoms of addiction include the following:

  • Mood swings, including grappling with anxiety, depression, and irritability
  • Difficulties at work and in social relationships
  • Engaging in dangerous behaviors, including driving under the influence of drugs
  • Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyed
  • An intense urge to use a drug, even when a person doesn’t want to on a more logical level or understands that the drug is doing them serious harm
  • A general feeling of detachment and isolation

Physical Symptoms

Even more so than psychological symptoms, it is important to understand that addiction is a very broad term. Addiction to opioids like heroin is very different from addiction to alcohol, even if those two addictions also share notable similarities. 

This is why it is important to research any drug you think a person might be addicted to. This will help you to better understand how it can affect your loved one. 

Some common physical symptoms of addiction include the following:

  • Insomnia
  • Weight changes
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms, such as pain or flu-like symptoms, when a person doesn’t take a drug for a long enough period
  • A building tolerance to a drug, with a person needing more of the drug for the same effect

Understanding Addiction 

Addiction is a disease, officially termed a substance use disorder. This fundamental fact is fairly important to understanding addiction, especially for those who haven’t struggled with serious addiction themselves. 

From an outside perspective, the solution to addiction may seem obvious: Stop taking the drugs that are doing you harm. However, it is far more complicated than that.

Drugs are addictive for a reason. They can essentially rewire the brain, driving the mind and body to crave more of a drug and making it very difficult to stop using it. 

While the exact mechanism of action varies depending on the drug used, the body can begin to treat “normal” as being under the influence of a drug. As the drug wears off, a person can experience intense psychological and physical discomfort, which is called withdrawal

Additionally, people generally begin abusing drugs for a reason. They may use drugs to cope with a difficult trauma they experience or because they feel hopeless. This is why even if a person gets through withdrawal and no longer has an intense, physical craving for a drug, they often still need systematic support through measures like therapy to prevent future drug abuse. 

Helping People Who Are Struggling With Addiction

If you want to help someone with addiction, resist the urge to blame them for their drug abuse. The circumstances that can lead a person to abuse drugs are often very complicated, with many factors outside their control. Once that abuse begins to trigger physical or psychological dependence, things are even less in that individual’s control. 

Instead, try to understand what caused them to abuse drugs in the first place. Do they feel alone? Did they experience an immensely difficult situation in their life? 

Research the drug they are addicted to, only using evidence-based sources for your information. You may be able to use what you learn to guide them through the process of getting help.

The end goal of helping a person with addiction is to convince them to go to a reputable, science-backed treatment center. Ideally, a treatment center will help them go through withdrawal, which is very difficult to do on one’s own. 

Then, treatment professionals can support the individual with professional counseling and similar services equipping them with the tools needed to avoid drug abuse in the future.

Understanding Addiction Treatment Options

There are several legitimate options for treating addiction. These are some of the most common treatment approaches:

Inpatient or Residential Treatment

Inpatient treatment involves going to a treatment center and staying there for multiple days, weeks, or even months. While at the facility, expert staff members can help a person go through withdrawal as comfortably as possible, provide counseling, and offer a variety of therapeutic options to help find what works best for a given patient.

One big advantage to residential or inpatient facilities is their structured nature. This makes it very difficult to abuse drugs while there, helping a patient commit to receiving care and avoid any triggers for further drug abuse.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient treatment. Many people in an inpatient program switch to outpatient treatment once they’ve gone through withdrawal, which is often considered one of the most difficult parts of managing addiction. 

In an outpatient program, a person visits a treatment facility periodically for counseling and sometimes to receive medications that can help with addiction treatment. These programs often begin with a fairly intense schedule, requiring multiple meetings a week. Then, the treatment schedule tapers in terms of the number of treatment hours, as the person begins to better control their symptoms.

Long-Term Follow-Up Care

It’s often said that addiction is a lifelong condition. As a result, long-term follow-up care is a very important part of addiction treatment. 

Even if a person no longer needs a highly structured inpatient or outpatient treatment program to resist relapse, they should still consider long-term care. This may take the form of seeing a licensed therapist on a regular basis who is knowledgeable in addiction treatment.

This care can help a person course-correct before a major problem occurs. If they feel drawn to use drugs or engage in drug abuse again, they can talk to their therapist, and this might prevent a relapse. 

Importantly, even a relapse doesn’t need to reset all of a person’s progress in recovery. With the right tools in place and access to a counselor, a person can greatly improve their chances of at least avoiding falling into the same (or worse) place that caused them to seek treatment to begin with.

How to Talk to a Loved One About Addiction

Talking to a loved one about their addiction isn’t easy, as it is often a difficult balancing act between their well-being and your own. Most people aren’t psychologists and don’t necessarily have much experience with drug misuse beyond what they’ve seen in movies and on TV.

Talking about addiction isn’t always intuitive. But this doesn’t mean you can’t start a good conversation with your loved one. Here are some tips that may help:

  1. Do your research. If you’re going to talk about addiction, you should know what you’re talking about. Forget what you think you know from any movies or TV you’ve consumed, as drug use is often portrayed inaccurately. Be very careful taking advice from non-experts. Even people who have a person’s best interest at heart can give bad advice that isn’t based in science. Research drug addiction using reliable sources. A good place to start is often through exploring government resources, like the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s many articles.
  2. Be patient. Even if a person accepts your input and admits they need help, it isn’t going to be easy. Relapse is common. Many people relapse, sometimes more than once, going for long periods without using drugs and then beginning to use them again. The good news is that countless people can and do recover from drug addiction, but it takes time and support.
  3. Offer your loved one some actionable, reasonable advice. Be honest with them without being harsh about your worries, and give them some options to consider. Noting the treatment centers nearby or phone numbers they can call can be a good way to start. Make sure you understand how they might pay for these things and how they might fit treatment into their schedule. Showing them the perfect facility isn’t very helpful if it is hours away or far above their price range.

Setting Boundaries

Whenever you talk about addiction with someone, it’s important to set boundaries. Even if a person struggling with addiction has no bad intentions, they still have the potential to damage your well-being or the well-being of those around you if you don’t draw certain lines.

Some good boundaries to establish include making it clear they cannot bring drugs into your house and may not enter your house when under the influence of drugs. You may also want to make a rule where they cannot communicate with you while under the influence of drugs. This can prevent them from saying or doing things that damage your relationship when they are intoxicated. 

Boundaries also help to stop codependent behaviors. They may prevent you from supporting a person’s drug abuse, which is a common problem for people whose loved ones struggle with addiction. If a person believes they can borrow money or outright steal it from you to buy drugs, they may use that to continue abusing drugs when they otherwise may have gotten help. 

Boundaries should be an ongoing discussion, with you adding new boundaries as necessary. Boundaries are about protecting people, including the person you want to help. 

If you think something needs to stop for you to continue helping someone, then establish that. Just make sure you are mindful of your tone and willing to explain why a certain rule needs to be put in place.

Taking the First Step to Help Someone With Drug Addiction

If you think someone in your life is dealing with drug addiction, you can help them today. Start a simple, honest conversation about your concerns. Avoid judgment, and express your love and support for them. 

They might not accept your offer of help today, but you are laying the groundwork for them to accept in the future.

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated May 1, 2023
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