Helping a Friend Get Treatment

It can be quite frustrating to observe a loved one or friend suffer through the consequences of substance abuse. People who have substance use disorders often appear to lack insight into the ramifications of their alcohol or drug use, and they are often resistant to discussing the effects of their behavior. Nonetheless, at some point, friends and family members of these individuals may become the only resources to convince them that they need help.

For those who would like to assist a friend in getting into treatment, there are three major considerations, as generally explained in the book Helping Someone with Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers:

  • Prepare: Be absolutely certain why you are approaching the person. Make an effort to learn and understand the signs of a substance use disorder. Rehearse how you will approach the person before actually doing so.
  • Use consideration: Do not attempt to force or coerce the person. Instead, approach the person in an honest and caring manner.
  • Be firm: While being too confrontational and forceful can backfire, it is also important to be firm regarding observations and any potential consequences that will be placed on the individual if they do not seek treatment. Be aware of any behavior in the past that has enabled the person’s addiction, and be ready to stop that behavior. Remember that a substance use disorder is a form of a psychiatric disorder and the person needs treatment.

Given the three above considerations, there are several guidelines to follow when approaching a friend who has an addiction.

  • One of the worst times to discuss the issue with the person is when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. As tempting as it may be to confront them while they are using or intoxicated, it is far better to wait until the person becomes sober and more rational before discussing the issue with them.
  • An opportune time to broach the subject is immediately after the person is recovering from using alcohol or drugs and may be a bit hungover. People are often more receptive to discussing the issue at these times.
  • Do not approach the person when you are angry with them. Confrontational approaches targeted at individuals with substance abuse problems may relieve some of your anger and distress; however, they most often are not useful in convincing an individual to get into treatment. Most often, individuals with substance use disorders become very reactive and defensive when confronted with the problem.
  • If possible, attempt to discuss the issue with the person in a private setting where others cannot hear the discussion. This helps to eliminate defensive reactions from the person and also makes the discussion more intimate and personal.
  • Make an attempt not to use accusations and place blame on the individual. Instead, it is far more productive to point out factual information, such as how the individual behaves when they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs and how their behavior affects you. It is much harder for the person to argue with facts and your feelings. This can keep the discussion positive.
  • If possible, offer the individual several different treatment options. Research the particular options you are going to offer thoroughly so you can explain them to the person.
  • Avoid lecturing the person. Instead, continue to point out facts and express concern and care for the person.
  • Consult an individual who has experience in the treatment of substance use disorders. This can be a licensed substance use disorder therapist or an individual who has a significant period of recovery from alcohol or drugs. One can attend a social support group meeting, such as Al-Anon, and discuss your situation with the members of the group.
  • Avoid using words like addict, junkie, and drunk. These terms will often only fuel defensiveness on the part of the person.
  • Do not make excuses for the individual’s substance use. If the person makes excuses for their substance use, roll with the excuses and continue to point out the detrimental aspects of their behavior and how it affects you and others.
  • Be prepared for resistance from the person. If the person becomes angry or the conversation becomes heated, it may be best to approach the person at another time. Avoid arguing and shouting. Many times, when the discussion becomes an argument, and individuals began shouting and yelling at each other, the attempt to get the person into treatment is lost. Some individuals may attempt to start a shouting match as a defensive reaction to being confronted with their substance abuse. This results in the attention being diverted from the main goal of the conversation. Anticipate resistance in advance and develop a plan to strategically address it.
  • Consider a formal intervention. An intervention is led by a professional and consists of a team of relatives and friends who get together and discuss the person’s substance abuse with them. The goal is to get the person into treatment.

Remember that the goal is to convince the person to commit to getting help and not for you to express your frustration or anger with them. Keep the goal in mind and expect resistance. Do not be afraid to consult with others and get help approaching your friend. Whatever the initial outcome of the interaction, you should expect that your relationship with the person will change. Using concern and care in your approach will more often result in your relationship with the person improving.