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    Supporting Someone With Substance Use Disorder

    Supporting Someone With Substance Use Disorder

    Having substance use disorder means that a person's repeated drug or alcohol use may interfere with the ability to be productive. Alcohol or drug use may interfere with relationships and everyday activities, such as work or school.

    When a person has substance use disorder, the condition can affect others such as friends and family members. Friends and family can help by offering support and understanding.

    What do I need to know about this condition?

    Substance use disorder can cause problems with mental and physical health. It can affect a person's ability to have healthy relationships and to meet responsibilities at home and at work or school. It can also lead to addiction.

    Alcohol, tobacco, legal or illegal drugs, and prescription medicines are examples of commonly misused substances.

    Symptoms associated with substance use disorder include:
    • Using a substance more than is normal.
    • Craving the substance or always thinking about it.
    • Trouble stopping substance use.
    • Spending a significant amount of time getting the substance, using it, or recovering from its effects.
    • Needing more and more of the substance to get the same effect (developing a tolerance).
    • Experiencing consequences of substance use, such as:
      • Poor performance at work or school.
      • Relationship problems.
      • Financial or legal problems.
      • Health problems.

    What do I need to know about the treatment options?

    Three people participating in a support group.

    Treatment for substance use disorder and recovery can be a long process. Treatment may involve:
    • Stopping substance use safely. This may require taking medicines and being closely observed for several days.
    • Group or individual counseling from mental health providers. The person with substance use disorder may attend daily counseling sessions at a treatment center.
    • Staying at a residential treatment center for several days or weeks.
    • Going to support group meetings. These groups are an important part of long-term recovery for many people. They include 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

    Many people who undergo treatment start using the substance again after stopping. This is called a relapse. If a person has a relapse, that does not mean that treatment will not work. Keep in mind that:
    • This disorder involves the brain, the body, and the people in a person's life (social system). Changing unhealthy behaviors is a complicated process that requires determination from the person.
    • The person may need to try several times to recover.
    • Your support is important in helping the person to recover.

    A responsible adult may need to stay with the person for some time after treatment to help with staying on track for recovery. This person can also watch for symptoms that are getting worse.

    How can I support a person with substance use disorder?

    Talk about the condition

    • Be careful about too much prodding. Try not to overdo reminders to an adult about things like taking medicines. Ask the person how you can help.
    • Explain that it is not easy to quit because substance use can change the part of the brain that gives someone self-control. Also, some people can easily become addicted because of their family genes.
    • Never ignore comments about suicide, and do not try to avoid the subject of suicide.
      • Talking about suicide will not make the person want to act on it.
      • You or the person with substance use disorder can reach out 24 hours a day to get free, private support (on the phone or a live online chat) from a suicide crisis helpline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 988 in the U.S.
    • Ask the person if you can come along to a health care visit and meet the health care provider or therapist. Ask if the person is open to giving you written permission to communicate with the providers if the person has problems.

    Find support and resources

    • Work with a health care provider who specializes in substance use disorders. The person's primary care provider may be able to recommend a provider.
    • Refer the person with substance use disorder to trusted online resources that can provide information about these disorders. A health care provider may be able to recommend resources. You could start with:
      • Government sites such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
      • National mental health organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
    • Look into local support groups or 12-step programs.
    • Connect with people in peer and family support groups. People in these groups understand what you and the person with the disorder are going through. They can help you feel a sense of comfort and connect you with local resources to help you learn more.

    General support

    • Make an effort to learn all you can about substance use disorder.
    • Help the person with substance use disorder follow the treatment plan as directed by health care providers. This could mean help with driving to therapy sessions or support group meetings.
    • Assure the person that even though treatment may be hard, it often works. Substance use disorder can be managed.
    • Encourage the person to avoid things, people, and situations (triggers) that may cause a relapse.
    • Talk with the person's treatment center staff or health care provider about how you can keep supporting the person during treatment, recovery, and relapses if necessary.

    How can I create a safe environment?

    • Talk with the person's health care provider about ways to lower the risk of harm. Based on the type of substance that the person is struggling with, the health care provider may recommend safety measures such as:
      • Vaccinations.
      • Medicines to prevent death from overdose.
      • Referrals for a clean needle exchange program.
      • Sexual health counseling.
    • If you believe that the person is driving while using drugs or alcohol, it is important to confront the behavior and to discuss the dangers of driving while drunk or high. In some cases, you may need to call the police to prevent harm to the person or others.

    How should I care for myself?

    It is important to find ways to care for your body, mind, and well-being while supporting someone with substance use disorder.
    • Join a support group for family members of people with addiction. Treatment centers may offer family support groups and other programs.
    • Consider individual therapy to help you learn to cope with the person's disorder.
    • Try to maintain your normal routines. This can help you remember that your life is about more than the person's condition.
    • Make time for activities that help you relax, and try to not feel guilty about taking time for yourself.
    • Be clear about limits and boundaries, especially if the person's behavior affects your well-being. Say "no" to requests or events that lead to a schedule that is too busy.
    • Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep.

    What are some signs that the condition is getting worse?

    Signs that the person's condition may be getting worse include:
    • New or more frequent symptoms.
    • Continued or increased use of the substance over time.
    • Continued use of the substance even after using it has had negative consequences.
    • Denying there is a problem.
    • Blaming you or others for the use of the substance.
    • Missing work, school, or important events.
    • Physical symptoms that are associated with continued substance use.
    • A feeling in you that you are powerless to help the person get better.

    Get help right away if:

    • The person you support is showing signs or thoughts about self-harm, or about hurting others.

    If you ever feel like your loved one may hurt himself or herself or others, or if he or she shares thoughts about taking his or her own life, get help right away. You can go to your nearest emergency department or:
    • Call your local emergency services (911 in the U.S.).
    • Call a suicide crisis helpline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 988 in the U.S. This is open 24 hours a day in the U.S.
    • Text the Crisis Text Line at 741741 (in the U.S.).


    • Having substance use disorder means that a person's repeated drug or alcohol use may interfere with the ability to be productive.
    • Substance use disorder can be treated with therapy, group counseling, medicine, or staying at a residential treatment center.
    • Support from close friends and family members is vital for a person to overcome substance use disorder. The support that you provide can help the person through the tough treatment and recovery process.
    • It is important to find ways to care for yourself while supporting someone with substance use disorder.

    This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your health care provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your health care provider.

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