How to Talk to Your Friend About Their Drug or Alcohol Use

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older used illicit drugs (e.g., marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine) in the past month, and 1 in 9 (11.4%) young people ages 12–25 used prescription drugs non-medically within the past year.1,2 Estimates are that nearly 7,800 people try an illicit drug for the first time every day—half of whom are teenagers.1

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All of this means that there is a good chance you have a friend who uses or abuses drugs. But talking to them about drug use isn’t easy. However, there are some things you can do to become more confident in how you might have that conversation, including:

  • Learning more about addiction.
  • Learning ways to promote an open and honest conversation.
  • Learning things to avoid that might derail the discussion.
  • Finding out more about treatment resources.

Learn About Addiction

It can be incredibly challenging for your friend to stop using drugs on their own.

If you think a friend is suffering from addiction, it’s important to know the common signs and symptoms associated with drug abuse so you can better communicate your concerns to them.

Common Signs and Symptoms

Drug addiction can be hard to detect because people who abuse substances are often secretive due to the shame they may feel around it. However, if you notice any of the following changes, it could indicate that your friend is suffering from drug abuse:3

  • Changing relationships with friends or family.
  • Sudden mood changes (high levels of energy interspersed with depression).
  • Your friend has become more silent or uncommunicative.
  • Loss of motivation at work, school, or extracurricular activities.
  • Unable to focus or concentrate.
  • Increased behavioral issues (breaking curfew, driving recklessly).
  • Lack of hygiene or messy appearance.
  • Dramatic changes in weight.
  • Complaining of financial stress.

While each person displays different signs and symptoms, drug addiction can impact the user’s social, financial, academic or occupational, and legal functioning.

Ideally, try to observe your friend’s behavior over a period of a few days or weeks to better understand the problem.4 It’s also wise to share your concerns and observations with a trusted family member or friend to determine their thoughts on the situation. You could discuss your observations with a therapist, doctor, or school guidance counselor as well to increase your awareness of the problematic patterns associated with substance abuse and addiction.4 These professionals can help guide you about what to say and what to do.

How Treatment Affects Long-Term Sobriety Rates

It can be incredibly challenging for your friend to stop using drugs on their own, in part, because repeated substance use impacts specific parts of the brain responsible for self-control, judgment, and decision-making.5 And though some people do seek treatment, it’s not uncommon for them to relapse afterward and reenter a program. This does not mean they have failed, but points to the fact that addiction is a chronic brain disease and, as with any chronic health issue, setbacks and obstacles are to be expected. However, the right treatment can help identify these struggles and empower a person to continue forward on their recovery journey.5

Learn More About How to Help

What to Say

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Knowing how to talk to your friend about their drug problem might be difficult. You might feel uncomfortable, awkward, or even frustrated about their addiction, but being honest and assertive about your concerns can actually help your friend increase their awareness about the problem. It can also help you establish clear boundaries about what you will and will not tolerate in your relationship.

A few points to consider when talking to your friend about their substance abuse include:6

  • Holding off having a conversation or doing anything until they are sober: It can be futile or even dangerous to begin a conversation when your friend is high.
  • Staying calm: Try to stay relaxed and composed throughout the conversation. It’s easy to get heated about the situation, but remaining level and calm makes the conversation feel safer for your friend.
  • Trying to put yourself in your friend’s shoes: They probably feel angry, defensive, or embarrassed. The more you anticipate these feelings, the better you can handle the difficult topics sensitively.
  • Expressing your compassion and concern: Explain that you are talking and asking questions because you love them and want to see them healthy and happy.
  • Promoting honesty: Let your friend know that you want to hear their thoughts and feelings free from judgment.
  • Reflecting empathically: Reflect on what you hear by restating and asking for input, following up with, “Did I miss anything?”
  • Using praise and positive feedback: It’s easy to focus on all the fears and negative traits your friend may have related to their drug use, but you want to show reassurance that you can still see their positive side too.
  • Listening to what’s being said between the words: Words can say a lot, but actions speak even louder. Pay attention to changes in facial expressions and body language.
  • Focusing on the behavior: You want to keep your language focused on why you’re worried about the behavior (drug use) rather than communicating that your friend is bad.

What Not to Say

It is also important to know what not to say and do when your friend uses drugs. By avoiding the following mistakes, you are more likely to have a smoother discussion, and it will be easier to get your point across safely and compassionately.

Do not:7

  • Attempt to threaten, bribe, punish, or lecture: This is not about you controlling your friend or taking something away from them since it will likely only make your friend angry, defensive, or withdrawn.
  • Be a martyr: If you overly emphasize your feelings, this may trigger your friend’s guilty feelings and their desire to use drugs.
  • Hide or throw out their drugs: That’s not your job, and doing so will only increase tension in your relationship.
  • Take over their responsibilities: This is a form of enabling, which can make you resentful and send mixed messages that you tolerate their behavior.
  • Shoulder the guilt of their drug addiction: No matter what anyone else says (or what you believe), a friend’s drug addiction is never your fault.

Remember, there is no perfect way to talk to your friend about your concerns, but following these recommendations can help. Be realistic about your expectations, do your best to remain calm and honest, and, no matter the outcome, remember that you are trying to be a good friend.

When Someone Is Resistant to Help

Resources to Offer Them

After sharing your concerns with your friend, they may ask for help in finding treatment. Here are some useful resources to get them started:

Sources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Nationwide Trends.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Prescription Drug Abuse: Young People at Risk.
  3. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (n.d.).  Look for Warning Signs.
  4. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2014). Helping an Adult Family Member or Friend with a Drug or Alcohol Addiction.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs.
  6. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2018). To Begin Addressing Your Child’s Drug Use, Start Talking.
  7. Helpguide.org. (2017). Drug Abuse and Addiction.

About the Editor

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