A young woman hugs her partner who is experiencing a substance abuse problem. She is using tips to help her partner and support him.

4 Tips for How to Help a Loved One With a Substance Abuse Problem

Updated: November 14, 2023

5 min.

Research shows that social support can help those struggling with substance use disorders (SUD) in their healing journey.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

It can be challenging to support a loved one with a substance use disorder (SUD)—defined by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as the recurrent use of alcohol or drugs causing significant impairment, including health problems, relationship issues, and problems functioning in daily life. You might feel helpless and powerless, like you can’t do anything other than watch them spiral out of control, or feel wracked with concern and worry for their well-being.

While all of these emotions are normal, it’s important to keep in mind that you may have more power than you realize to support someone with substance abuse issues. In fact, research shows that caring relationships can help someone recover from substance abuse, giving them support to recognize their problem and seek professional help. From identifying the signs and symptoms of substance use issues to seeking professional mental health treatment, here’s how to help a loved one with SUD.

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How to help a loved one with a substance use disorder

As mentioned, social support can be a powerful catalyst in the treatment process for those with SUD. Research shows that individuals with substance use disorders who receive social support experience an increased sense of safety and optimism. At the same time, social support helps reduce stress and loneliness while combatting the shame, isolation, and secrecy surrounding substance abuse. Here are four tips for how to help a loved one with SUD:

1. Educate yourself 

Understanding the nature of SUD can help you approach the situation with your loved one more effectively. SUDs typically change a person’s thinking, mood, and behavior. They can affect how your loved one relates to others and makes choices. Although substance abuse affects everyone differently, some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Changes in physical appearance, such as a lack of personal hygiene
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Neglecting responsibilities at work, home, or school
  • Misusing drugs to avoid or alleviate withdrawal symptoms
  • Unexplained changes in personality or attitude
  • Sudden mood swings, irritability, or angry outbursts

Substance abuse problems often co-occur with other mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). However, it’s important to remember that mental health conditions and SUDs can affect anyone. 

2. Express concern with open, non-judgemental communication

If you think your loved one might be struggling with their substance use, don’t judge them or make them feel ashamed. Instead, approach conversations with compassion and offer your support. Tell them that you love them and that you’re concerned about their well-being. When you provide a safe space for them to open up to you, you’ll be one step closer to getting them the mental health care they need.

You can share specific concerns about their behavior without being confrontational by using “I” statements to express your feelings and observations. For instance, if a loved one’s alcohol or drug use is impacting your relationship, you can say, “I’ve noticed that there have been times when alcohol (or drugs) seems to be causing issues in our relationship. I feel worried and upset when this happens because our relationship means a lot to me. Can we talk about how we might work together to address this?” By maintaining an open, non-confrontational dialogue and avoiding blaming or shaming language, you offer your support and express a willingness to help them seek treatment or make positive changes.

3. Encourage professional support 

Substance use disorders are common, recurrent, and often serious mental health disorders, but they are highly treatable with a combination of talk therapy and medication management. Everyone is different, so it’s important to explore different types of treatment and choose a treatment plan that fits your loved one’s needs and goals. Here are some mental health resources to consider:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT, a form of psychotherapy, helps people understand how their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings influence their behaviors. By combining cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques, CBT helps people change the thought and behavioral patterns that contribute to substance use, research shows. Many therapists offer CBT in different settings, including group therapy, family therapy, and couples counseling. For those who need more than traditional once-weekly therapy sessions, there are more intensive options like intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), partial hospitalization programs, and residential treatment options. 

Family or couples therapy 

Participating in family therapy or couples therapy with your loved one can help you gain valuable insights into their mental health and support them in their recovery process. Supporting your loved one during therapy sessions can also help you learn tools to support them on their journey, improve communication, and resolve conflicts.

Online mental health services

Research shows that online mental health treatment can be an effective treatment option for substance use disorders and addiction. If your loved one doesn’t live close to an in-person treatment option, they can get virtual mental health support from the comfort of their own home.

Support groups

Peer support groups and 12-step groups can be especially helpful during the recovery process, giving your loved one the opportunity to connect with other people and learn healthier coping strategies. Many support groups offer in-person meetings, but online support groups are also available. One option for exploring support group resources for individuals with mental health conditions and SUD is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website.

A man and woman are pictured sitting with their support group. They are in a peer support group to help them help a loved one with a substance abuse problem.

4. Practice self-care

Supporting someone with SUD can be emotionally draining. If you’re helping a loved one navigate the treatment process, don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. You can seek support from friends, family, or a SUD caregiver support group. Ultimately, seeking emotional support and making time for self-care will give you the strength to set healthy boundaries and continue supporting your loved one.

Substance use disorder support at Charlie Health

If you are struggling with mental health concerns and alcohol or drug use, Charlie Health is here to help. 

Charlie Health is a virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) designed to offer more than once-weekly support for young people with complex mental health conditions and their families. Our program includes supported groups, individual counseling, and family therapy. As mentioned, many people struggling with SUD are also dealing with complex mental health issues. We offer SUD treatment designed to address these co-occurring issues. However, we are unable to deliver active SUD treatment options (such as urinary analyses or the prescription of controlled substances, such as Suboxone). 

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