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Helping a Friend Who Has a Substance Abuse Problem

Cassidy Webb

September is National Recovery Month, a time to meditate on substance abuse problems. In light of this, College News dives into understanding addiction, recognizing the signs in others and how to help friends and family.

Watching a friend harm themself and others due to substance addiction is a painful and worrying experience to endure. Sometimes it can be overwhelmingly difficult to determine what the best way to help is. However, ignoring the issue can be more damaging than it can be helpful. Regardless of how difficult it may be, it is important to know how to best help a friend who is suffering from addiction. 

National Recovery Month: Together we are stronger

September is National Recovery Month, a time to not only celebrate people in recovery but to help break the stigma and spread awareness around addiction. Unfortunately, addiction can touch all walks of life, and it is being seen more and more in young adults. Many young adults will experiment with drugs during their college years, but it can become a serious problem if drug use becomes compulsive rather than recreational. 

The theme of Recovery Month this year is “Join the Voices for Recovery: Together We are Stronger.” Together we are stronger emphasizes the need to share resources, support, and stories of recovery in order to help someone who is suffering from addiction. By working as a community, with families or with friends, you can better learn how to support someone who is suffering from addiction.

Understanding addiction

Before you can effectively help a friend who suffers from addiction, it is important to understand what addiction is and how it manifests.

Studies suggest that more than 33 percent of college students, aged 18-22, engage in binge drinking each month and about 20 percent will use an illicit drug. The combination of stress, course loads, curiosity and peer pressure can play major factors in the frequency in which students use substances. Among the most popular substances of abuse on college campuses include marijuana, alcohol, Adderall and ecstasy. If any of these substances are abused over a prolonged period of time, psychological or physical dependency can occur, potentially leading to addiction.

Many times, people who suffer from addiction are met with stigma. Stigma comes from preconceived ideas about addiction and the language used to describe these ideas. For example, people who view addiction as a choice may say, “Why can’t you just stop? I drink too, and I can control it.”

On the other hand, someone who believes addiction is simply a lack of morals may say, “I get high on the weekends but still make it to class or work, why can’t you?”

The sad part about addiction is that once a person has crossed over the threshold from recreational use to habitual, compulsive use, their mind, and sometimes body, will depend on the substance to function. Once the mental manifestation of addiction takes hold, a person will obsess over a substance, to the point where it becomes the most important thing in their life. Often times, this obsession is uncontrollable. 

Similarly, once the body is physically dependent on a substance, a person will experience withdrawal symptoms when he or she does not take the drug. As a result, the body will crave more of the drug in order to avoid feeling sick. For these reasons, addiction is an obsession of the mind and a physical craving of the body—it is much more powerful than a simple choice. 

Helping vs. enabling

Trying to help a friend who is suffering from addiction can be a difficult and confusing task. In fact, some people may believe that they are helping when they are really enabling. Enabling is one of the most dangerous things a friend can do to a person who suffers from addiction because it actually eliminates the responsibility of another person for their actions. As a result, it can allow a person who is addicted to continue using without consequences. 

Some examples of enabling behaviors include: 

  • Loaning a friend money for food, rent, books or other expenses
  • Offering a friend a ride to the liquor store or drug dealer’s home if they are intoxicated and ask you to drive them
  • Making up excuses or lies to cover up a friend’s behaviors
  • Allowing a friend to stay with you if they are kicked out of their home or dorm while they are still abusing substances
  • Ignoring or refusing to talk about a friend’s addictive behavior

While you may feel like you are helping your friend by protecting them from danger or potential consequences, it will only mask the true severity of your friend’s addiction. If a person doesn’t realize they have a problem and isn’t facing any consequences, they will be reluctant to get help.

Helping a friend who is suffering

Despite how difficult it may be, there are ways to help a friend who is suffering from addiction. If your friend’s addiction has progressed so far that they need rehab, there are certain things you should and should not do to convince them to get help. 

When trying to convince a friend to go to rehab, you should never blame yourself for how your friend reacts, further enable your friend to continue their addiction or repeatedly harass your friend to get help. Instead, you can educate your friend on how rehab might be beneficial, reminding them that college is a crucial time in their life as they are developing their identity, intelligence, skills and career. Let them know that you are concerned about how their substance use will affect their future development. 

Then, you should set and enforce clear, healthy boundaries. Let your friend know what you will and what you will not tolerate when it comes to their behaviors. If it is unacceptable for them to crash at your place when they are high, make that be known and stick to your boundary. Let them know that you will not tolerate behaviors that are self-destructive or harmful. 

If healthy boundaries are in place and your friend still refuses help, reassure them that you will be there to help them find treatment when they are ready. Unfortunately, we cannot control other people, and if your friend is not ready to seek help, they will at least know where to turn when the time comes. 

In the end, it is most important to not enable your friend and to make sure you take care of yourself. Encouraging him or her to seek treatment and being there to support his or her recovery is one of the best things you can do to support an addict. Although it isn’t easy to detach yourself from the outcomes of addiction, it is essential to maintain your wellbeing and show your friend tough love.

See also: The Lumineers: New Album Explores Addiction
ALL FALL DOWN by Jennifer Weiner – A Mommy Blogger’s Secret Addiction to Prescription Drugs
Zac Efron went to rehab for cocaine addiction
The facts about addiction

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