How to help a friend with a substance abuse problem
Worried about a friend? Here's what you can do.
You’ve been close for years, but something doesn’t seem right with your friend. They are more withdrawn, moody and ill-at-ease. You’ve noticed they’ve starting hanging out with a very different crowd at school, and have alienated the best friends they used to keep close. Even their habits are different.
Young people experiment with drugs, alcohol and other substances for all sorts of reasons, be it curiosity, peer pressures, another co-occurring mental diagnosis like anxiety or depression, or problems at home.
Potential Signs of a Drug or Alcohol Problem
Some of the following signs and symptoms may mean your friend has a drug or alcohol problem:
- Compulsive, out-of-control drinking or doing drugs
- Neglecting other activities such as work or school
- Becoming more likely to take serious risks in order to get drugs
- Relationship issues, including defensiveness about their problem
- Being secretive about drug or alcohol use and related injuries
- Changes in personal hygiene and appearance (unclean clothes, disheveled looks, major “makeovers” that seem to come out of nowhere)
- A family history—maybe their parents or a close sibling already has a drinking or drug problem
- Continued use despite negative consequences— are they getting in trouble for being late for work or skipping class, but don’t seem to care?
How to support your friend
If you suspect that all of these changes are part of a new or developing substance abuse problem, here are some suggestions for how you might point your friend in the direction of God’s comfort and healing and towards greater reliance on their Higher Power.
Listen attentively to your friend. The Bible is full of admonitions to listen, starting with the very nature of who God is. The God of the Bible is a God who hears and pays attention to the suffering of human beings, and this capacity to listen attentively to another person is part of what it means to love them. Maybe that’s why the writer of the book of James leaves readers with this exhortation: “everybody should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
Simply listening to your friend — and listening without offering “quick fix” solutions or unwanted advice — is a powerful way to show you care. Attentive listening can greatly deepen loving connection, and loving connection is key to recovery from an addiction. Invite your friend to take a walk with you and share how they’re feeling and what they’re going through. Ask them what you can do to help. You don’t have to dispense much advice in order to communicate your care and concern, and chances are that much of the time advice is not what your friend is after, anyway. A listening ear, in contrast, very well may be.
Have fun together. Consider asking your friend to join you in some healthy forms of fun and recreation. This might be as simple as inviting them to play soccer with you at the park or to join your band. Maybe it would mean asking them to join you on an upcoming youth group outing or on a hiking or camping trip. Time spent in “The Great Outdoors” can be especially therapeutic — so much so that taking a hike can be a natural antidepressant. In these ways, you will be communicating to your friend that you enjoy their company, value their friendship and are there for them no matter what they’re going through.
Talk to a trusted adult. There may be times when consulting an adult is your very best course of action. If, for example, your friend communicates that they intend to hurt themself, you should immediately report the incident to your youth pastor. If that’s not possible in the moment, tell another pastor or priest who is available there and then — or, call the emergency number in your country. Never feel guilty about getting your friend life-saving help for a potentially life-threatening addiction.
Another way to ensure that your friend gets the level of care they need in order to find freedom from drugs or alcohol is to call a substance abuse hotline, two of which are listed below. Trained addiction professionals can provide more detailed advice about next steps for helping your friend choose recovery.
Asking for guidance is not a sign of weakness or incompetence. The writer of Proverbs suggests that on the contrary, seeking counsel is the very essence of wisdom. If you find yourself in a place where your friend’s drug or alcohol use is spiraling out of control and you don’t know what to do, just ask those who do. You’ll be exercising the better part of wisdom.
To find a substance abuse hotline in Australia, you can visit Australian Drug Information Network for a listing of various phone numbers to call. In the United States, you can dial the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) help line at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). They can provide you with more information about ways to help a friend in need.
Kristina Robb-Dover is a full-time writer for Beach House Center for Recovery, and her latest book is The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addiction (InterVarsity Press, January 2016).