How to help someone with alcohol and drug addiction

If a friend or family member has a problem with alcohol or drugs, you might be wondering what you can do to help. Many people drink more alcohol than what is recommended. In 2020-21, one quarter of Australians aged 18 years and over exceeded the alcohol drinking guidelines[1]. Meanwhile, estimates indicate that 43% of Australians aged 14 and over have used a drug illicitly at some point in their lives[2].

There’s a difference between having an addiction and drinking one too many or using drugs now and then. Before we explain how to help someone with drug and alcohol addiction, it helps to understand what the term means.

What is alcohol and drug addiction?

When people experience problems related to alcohol, drugs, and other substances (such as glue or petrol), health professionals call this a substance use disorder. People use substances for many reasons. For example, they might use alcohol or drugs to have fun, relax, or because they provide a sense of escape from life’s problems. For some people, this can lead to dependence on that substance to cope.

Some substances are more addictive than others, so people need more of them to get the same effect. Alcohol and drug use can become a problem when these substances are affecting someone’s physical or mental health, everyday life or relationships.

How to help someone with drug and alcohol addiction

Here are four things you can do to help someone with a drug and alcohol addiction.

Recognise the signs

It’s not always possible to tell someone has an alcohol or drug addiction, especially if they’re trying to hide it. However, there are some things to look out for, including:

  • physical signs – such as large pupils, tremors, sudden weight change, disturbed sleep, nosebleeds/runny nose, difficulty reducing or stopping alcohol or drug use
  • mental health symptoms – such as anxiety, depression or paranoia
  • behavioural signs – such as trouble keeping up at work/school, withdrawing from activities, and engaging in violent or risky behaviours
  • relationship issues – such as conflict with family and friends.

Start a conversation about alcohol and drug use

It’s only natural to feel nervous about such a conversation, but if you want to help someone with an alcohol or drug addiction, the topic needs to be raised. Here are some ideas to help you get started.

  • Be sensitive and compassionate – no-one plans to develop a drug or alcohol addiction. Try to approach the topic from a place of care and concern, while being honest about your feelings.
  • Choose the time and place – have the conversation somewhere private where you won’t be interrupted. If possible, make sure the person isn’t affected by drugs or alcohol at the time. It might be less confronting to talk while you walk, rather than sitting face to face.
  • Listen – you might not agree with everything the person says, but it’s important to listen without interrupting or arguing. This will help to build your loved one’s trust and confidence that you are someone safe they can confide in.
  • Don’t delay – don’t wait for a crisis before you try to help someone with drug and alcohol addiction. The earlier they can get help, the better.
  • Be persistent – there’s no fast fix to stop an alcohol or drug addiction. You may need to have numerous conversations as you support a loved one on their journey to recovery.

Be prepared for denial

Not everyone is ready to hear that their alcohol or drug use has become a problem. Your loved one might become angry, defensive, or refuse to talk to you. They may feel a sense of guilt or shame that causes them to deny the issue. Don’t get angry, argue, or try to force them to talk.

Threats, lectures or emotional appeals to change tend to make people feel worse and may only serve to encourage their alcohol or drug use. Instead, revisit the conversation another time. In the meanwhile, they might consider what you’ve said.

Encourage them to seek help

Many people need expert help to stop drug and alcohol addiction. Suddenly ceasing alcohol or drugs  can be dangerous and even life-threatening in some cases.

Your loved one might need to go through an addictive behaviours program where they can stop alcohol or drug use in a controlled, supported environment. This might involve medical detoxification to help them ease off drugs or alcohol while managing withdrawal symptoms.

Most people also need support to deal with the psychological and behavioural factors that led to an alcohol or drug addiction in the first place. For some, this may involve an inpatient stay at a mental health and addiction recovery facility.

Many people can also benefit from group-based therapy as an outpatient to help them keep off drugs and alcohol in the long term. Some people will need all of these services to optimise the likelihood of stopping drug and alcohol use.

If you’re helping someone with a drug or alcohol addiction, encourage them to talk to a health professional. A general practitioner can refer your loved one to a suitable drug and alcohol service.

Where to get help for alcohol and drug addiction

Drug and alcohol services are located throughout Australia. If you’re looking for support in the Geelong region, The Geelong Clinic in St Albans Park offers specialised care for people living with an alcohol or drug addiction.

Our experienced team of professionals work with your loved one to help them understand addiction and build the skills for managing it. As a private mental health service, they’ll receive care from the same psychiatrist throughout their journey with us.

We’re a regulated mental health and rehab facility, accredited under The Australian Council on Healthcare Standards (ACHS).

Learn more about how we can help you support a loved one with recovery from alcohol or drug addiction.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2022). Alcohol consumption. Accessed online 5.12.2022.

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2022). Illicit drug use. Accessed online 5.12.2022.

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