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Someone I Know has a Substance Use Disorder

Date: 04/01/22

Shot of a young man looking stressed out at home

If someone you know misuses drugs or alcohol, you know that it impacts their lives and the lives of their friends, family, and coworkers. You may feel sad, afraid, or even angry about how your life has changed because of their illness, or you may worry that they will hurt themselves or someone else. You aren’t alone. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey showed that 46% of U.S. adults have a family member or close friend with a substance use disorder, whether they are currently misusing drugs or alcohol or have in the past.

If it’s your friend or family member who has a substance use disorder, you probably want them to stop so things can go back to the way they were. It’s important to remember that you can’t force anyone to stop using drugs or alcohol, but you can support their recovery.

What is substance use disorder?

Substance use disorder is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior in a way that makes them unable to control their use of the substance, even if using it has harmful consequences. These substances can be legal, like alcohol, misused prescription drugs like oxycodone, or illicit drugs like methamphetamine. Substance use disorder is not a weakness or choice – often, the person knows they have a problem but can’t stop. Substance use disorder can damage relationships, mental and physical health, finances, and family stability.

What should I look for?

Because the substances that people misuse have different effects on the body, substance use disorder can look different from one person to the next. But it is common for behavior to change. The National Institutes of Health says the following behaviors may indicate that someone is misusing substances: [1]

  • Spends a lot of time alone
  • Loses interest in their favorite things
  • Poor hygiene – not bathing, changing clothes, or brushing their teeth
  • Unusual tiredness or sadness
  • Unusually energetic, talks too fast, or says things that don’t make sense
  • Unusually nervous or cranky
  • Rapid shifts between feeling good and feeling bad
  • Sleeps at strange hours
  • Misses important appointments
  • Work or school problems, skipping school or work
  • Eats a lot more or a lot less than normal
  • Finding drug paraphernalia like pipes or needles, or noticing a strange smell

Some of these signs can be indications of other medical or psychological problems, so it’s always important to keep the lines of communication open. Encourage them to see their healthcare practitioner.

How can I help?

If someone you know has substance use disorder, there are things you can do to support their recovery. There are also things you can do to support yourself. Here are some suggestions:

Maintain a positive attitude. Make sure your friend or family member knows you support their recovery

Attend counseling sessions. Substance use disorder affects the whole family. Attending family or marriage counseling sessions helps you to understand the family’s role in recovery

Join a support group. Support groups like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon offer a safe space for family members to talk about what they are going through with others who have had similar experiences

Educate yourself. Learning more about substance misuse and recovery makes you better able to support someone in recovery

Learn about harm reduction. Harm reduction is one approach to substance use recovery. Harm reduction doesn’t focus on complete sobriety—instead, it pays more attention to a person’s health, social, and economic outcomes. For many people, this improves their ability to stay in recovery.

Participate in sober activities. Many local substance use organizations have fun or educational activities that can be enjoyed by people in recovery and their loved ones.

A little about language

Words matter, and the words you use about substance use disorder matter a lot. Avoid language that expresses negative attitudes and beliefs, also called stigmatizing language. Stigmatizing terms reinforce the incorrect idea that a substance use disorder is a choice, not an illness, and can even keep people from seeking help for their illness. Instead of using stigmatizing terms like “John is a drug abuser,” “addict,” “junkie,” or “alcoholic,” using people-first language like “John has a substance use disorder” or “…is in recovery” can remove some of the feeling of blame or judgement from your words.

Writer Cindy Maxim

Sources: Pew Research Center, Mayo Clinic, American Psychiatric Association, Very Well Mind, NHI News in Health,

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Please always follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Programs and services are subject to change. Managed Health Network, LLC (MHN) is a subsidiary of Health Net, LLC. The MHN companies include Managed Health Network and MHN Services, LLC. Health Net and Managed Health Network are registered service marks of Health Net, LLC or its affiliates. All rights reserved