How to Detect if a Loved One Is Struggling With Substance Abuse

Discussing substance abuse with a friend or loved one can be difficult, but it could be the conversation that changes (and saves) their life.

Socializing and working with friends, family, and co-workers who struggle with substance abuse can be difficult, but sometimes it can be even more difficult to determine if there’s a problem at all. Many people battling with addiction issues are very good at hiding their use and their symptoms, and most of them are unwilling to talk about their drug and alcohol abuse.

Keep reading to learn a few tell-tale signs of how to detect if someone you care about is struggling with substance abuse, as well as some helpful strategies for speaking with them about their usage and potential treatment options.

Common Signs of Substance Abuse or Dependency

Most of us probably know what someone who is drunk looks, smells, and sounds like. The same goes for someone who is high on marijuana. Of course, having too much to drink at a social gathering or visiting a local dispensary with friends doesn’t make someone an addict. But all substance abuse has to begin somewhere, and there are several early signs of drug and alcohol addiction that, if detected early, could make all the difference.

If a friend, family member, or coworker is exhibiting one or more of the following behaviors, you might want to reach out to them about how they’re feeling.

  • Continued prescription usage after the medication is no longer needed
  • Increased usage to achieve the desired intoxicated effect, commonly known as tolerance
  • Noticeable fatigue, dishevelment, shakiness, or flu-like symptoms
  • Consistent complaints of stomach issues, chills and sweats, and headaches
  • Repeated issues with work, family, or the authorities
  • Incessant conversations about drugs and alcohol
  • Paranoia, or the feeling the individual is being watched, followed, or targeted
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyable pastimes, such as athletics, painting, or exercise
  • Driving or operating heavy machinery under the influence
  • Borrowing money for drug or alcohol abuse under the pretense of other needs
  • Irritability, aggressiveness, and difficulty communicating with friends and family

In a vacuum, none of these behaviors necessarily suggest substance abuse and might be indicative of other issues like stress, problems at home, or another physical or emotional condition. However, if you consistently notice one or several of these signs and symptoms, you might consider speaking with your friend, family member, or coworker to determine if they’re struggling with substance abuse.

Speaking With a Loved One About Addiction

Once you’re fairly certain your friend, family member, or coworker is suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol, you might want to approach them directly about their health and reassure them that you and others care about their wellbeing. Addiction can be a lifelong struggle and lead to additional mental, emotional, and physical injuries and illness, which means early support is key to recovery.

Here are a few methods that might be effective when approaching a loved one about whether they are struggling with substance abuse.

  • Broach the topic while your friend is sober. Attempting to speak with someone about their substance abuse problems while they’re impaired is counterproductive. There’s a good chance they could become defensive or even violent, and even if you do seem to get through to them, they might change their mind the following day when they’re no longer intoxicated — or even forget the conversation altogether.
  • Do not judge. Come from a place of love and support. The last thing anyone wants is to be judged, and that’s especially true for someone dealing with substance abuse. Reassure your friend or family member that you just want to support them and offer your help if they want it. Let them know you care about them no matter what, but also be sure to set boundaries about what sort of behavior or actions you won’t surround yourself with. For instance, you might outline your expectations and consequences if they tend to get angry when they drink or if they want to use when the two of you see each other socially.
  • Provide examples of previous behaviors. Many addicts have never truly considered how their actions impact the people who care about them. As painful as it might be, you need to let them know about previous behaviors that made you concerned for their wellbeing or even scared for your own safety. Driving intoxicated, domestic abuse, or poor financial choices are all common behaviors of people struggling with substance abuse.
  • Remain consistent with your messaging. Once you’ve committed to speaking directly, don’t waver in your resolve. Keep your words consistent, and follow through with your actions. For example, if you tell your friend or family member that you don’t want to be around them when they’re using drugs, don’t let it slide if you are at a party or social event with one another and witness them using. Let them know how you feel, and then remove yourself from the situation. Stick to your word and maintain your conviction.
  • Encourage (but don’t force) treatment options. Not every addict is ready to seek treatment, and many of them are sometimes unwilling to admit they have a problem. It’s their disease, and they’ll face it when they’re ready. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t suggest healthy alternatives to their behaviors, including seeking help in a 12-step program or entering an inpatient or outpatient treatment facility. Don’t focus on their problem; instead, highlight the benefits of various treatment options and living a healthier, happier lifestyle. And as long as they remain mindful of the boundaries you’ve set, let them know you’re always there to talk or support them.

Contact Canopy Health to Learn More About Care and Coverage for Substance Abuse

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse or other behavioral health issues, please don’t wait until the problem gets worse. Seek out appropriate treatment options from local support groups, certified therapists, or experienced medical professionals.

Canopy Health alliance partners offer several potential treatment options that could be a good fit for you or your loved one, including:

  • Good Samaritan Hospital: The chemical dependency program at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose offers several different treatment options for individuals struggling with substance abuse, including inpatient medical detox, chemical dependency partial hospitalization, chemical dependency intensive outpatient, and aftercare support groups.
  • Highland Hospital: Alameda Health System’s multidimensional substance abuse program is located in the OA Wing on the first floor of Highland Hospital. Programs are focus on recovery and case management for drug- and alcohol-related problems, including an intensive day care rehab program for pregnant women and new mothers.
  • John Muir Health Behavioral Health Center: Located in Concord, the John Muir Health Behavioral Health Center offers chemical dependency recovery services on an inpatient and outpatient basis. Their staff take a “medical model” approach to treatment and follow appropriate steps to help patients manage their disease by making proactive changes in their lives through tailored, personalized methods.


5 tips for talking to a friend about addiction. (2016, August 11). AddictionCenter. Retrieved from

Signs of drug addiction. (2018). WebMD. Retrieved from