Approximately 40.3 million individuals aged 12 and older struggled with a substance use disorder, the medical term for addiction, in the United States in 2020, but only 4 million of them received the treatment they needed.1
Substance use disorders are chronic diseases characterized by the uncontrollable use of drugs or alcohol despite the harmful consequences.2 There are several reasons why individuals don’t seek treatment, including denial, the belief that they can quit whenever they want, fear, the stigma associated with substance misuse, privacy concerns, the cost of treatment, the geographic location of the treatment facility, admission availability problems, and more.3-5
As the loved one of someone struggling with addiction, you may be able to convince them to get treatment, but it’s going to take patience and effort.
Ways to Talk to Someone About Going to Rehab
Convincing someone with an addiction to get help may be the encouragement they need to enter rehab. Approach the subject compassionately and strategically.
Do Your Research
Before speaking with a loved one about addiction, it’s best to familiarize yourself with language that’s supportive and accurate and information that contributes to healthy conversations. Understanding addiction will not only help you to be empathetic, but allows you to understand the facts so you can be better equipped to handle the conversation. Look into the treatment options before beginning the conversation so you can offer solutions.
You should know the signs and symptoms of substance misuse before talking to a loved one. These may include:6
- Wanting to stop drinking or attempting to stop drinking but can’t.
- Using more of the substance or for longer than they intended.
- Spending a lot of time getting, using, or feeling the aftereffects of the substance.
- Continuing to drink, regardless of the problems it causes with family and friends.
- Using the substance interferes with work or school.
- Avoiding activities they once found enjoyable in order to use substances.
- Participating in risky behaviors while using the substance, such as driving while intoxicated.
- Continuing to use the substance despite the negative or worsening effects on their physical and/or mental health.
- Taking more of the substance to feel the desired effect, which is known as tolerance.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the substance.
- Craving the substance.
Additionally, understand the treatment options, which may include:7
- Detoxification. Often the first step in a more comprehensive treatment program, drug detox allows the body to rid itself of the substance and other toxins while under the supervision of a medical professional. During medically managed detoxification, your loved one experiences withdrawal symptoms safely and as comfortably as possible.
- Inpatient rehab. Inpatient or residential treatment can be very effective, especially for individuals with a co-occurring mental health disorder. Your loved one lives at the facility for the duration of treatment, where they receive 24-hour care, including counseling, medication, and therapies that help them understand the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that led to the substance misuse in the first place and teach them effective ways to cope.
- Outpatient programs. Outpatient services often mirror inpatient care, but your loved one remains at home or in a sober living residence and visits the facility for individual, group, and family therapy sessions and behavior therapy services, too. This option may work well if you retain a supportive, substance-free home environment.
- Aftercare. Once formal treatment concludes, ongoing services help your loved one avoid relapse and maintain long-term recovery. Programs may include mutual-help groups, counseling, alumni events, and more.
Consult a Medical or Mental Healthcare Professional
Consider speaking to a healthcare professional prior to talking to your loved one and asking questions to help you better understand addiction, withdrawal, and treatment options. Beyond that, offer to accompany your loved one to a doctor appointment if they’re open to it. Someone like a primary care physician or licensed mental healthcare provider can evaluate your loved one, evaluate their substance use, and help design a treatment plan for them.8
Have an Honest Conversation with Your Loved One
Without judgement and with a willingness to listen, have an honest conversation about your concerns regarding your loved one’s substance use. How and when you have the conversation is imperative to the potential of a positive outcome. Thus, consider the following:9,10
- Plan what you’re going to say during the conversation. Practice ahead of time and prepare.
- Focus on the facts you discovered during research. Substance misuse is a disease, not a moral failure or lack of willpower.
- Don’t gang up on your loved one, causing them to feel threatened. You want them to feel loved and supported.
- Use non-stigmatizing language to keep judgement out of the conversation. Avoid words such as “addict,” “alcoholic,” and “user,” and rely on science-based language like “person with a substance use disorder” instead.
- Choose the right time to talk. Your loved one should not be high, intoxicated, or feeling the aftereffects of any substances.
- Be supportive and calm.
Boundaries help set expectations within a relationship to allow you and your loved one to feel safe, comfortable, and respected while still being able to provide support.11 Boundaries help keep relationships intact.
You may set boundaries regarding the use of drugs or alcohol in your home, lending your loved one money, or something else. The important thing is to communicate the boundaries calmly, clearly, and consistently and let your loved one know that when their behaviors cross these boundaries, those actions impact and/or damage the relationship.
Approach the conversation with compassion, love, and support. Studies indicate that using I-language statements are effective conversation starters for a conflict discussion.12 An example of this may include: “I understand why you might feel that way, but I feel this way, so I think the situation is unfair.”12
You want to word your sentences in such a way that avoids judgement or stigma. The following are potential sentences that you may use, tweaking it to fit your situation:12
- “Wouldn’t it be great to hang out with the family a little more?” This focuses on the benefit of making a change in their life.
- “Many people have struggled with substance misuse. You’re not alone. Things can get better.” Emphasize positive possibilities.
- “Let’s do activities that don’t involve drinking. How about we go see a movie?” This is a specific suggestion that redirects the individual to do something positive with a family member.
Take Our Substance Use Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute substance use self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance use. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
What Shouldn’t I Say?
You want to choose your words carefully when talking to your loved one about their substance use. Things you should avoid include:9,13
- Talking to your loved one while either one of you is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Speculating or judging.
- Trying to convince your loved one that they have a problem. If they feel they don’t, agree to speak with them at some point in the future. There’s no reason to convince someone to get help if they don’t believe they have a problem.
- Referring to them as a junkie, alcoholic, addict, or substance abuser. Remember that you want to use language that shows an understanding that your loved one has a problem—not that they are the problem.
Can American Addiction Centers Help Me?
Yes, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help you. AAC is the nationwide leader in addiction treatment. Our free and confidential hotlines are open 24/7. Our admissions navigators are available to talk or text to answer questions, including (but not limited to):
- General questions about treatment.
- The process of entering treatment.
- Insurance coverage.
- Services, programs, and amenities offered at each facility.
You can call on behalf of a family member or friend. The call is completely confidential. The options available to your loved one depend on their needs, insurance, and co-occurring health conditions, among many other factors.
Can I Force Them to Go to Rehab?
Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia enacted involuntary commitment laws for those struggling with alcohol or substance use disorders.14
To place a loved one in involuntary rehab, there is a step-by-step process that varies by jurisdiction. While specifics differ, most statutes require similar criterion be met, which may include:14
- A disability. Addiction has rendered your loved one physically or mentally disabled.
- Neglect. Your loved one has lost the ability to take care of their basic needs and/or manage their personal affairs.
- A threat. They pose a danger to themself or others.
- Incapacitation. The individual lacks the ability to make decisions.
- Loss of control.
While you can petition the court, your loved one needs to be assessed by a medical professional who can certify—in writing—that the individual requires drug or alcohol use treatment.14
While it is best for someone struggling with substance misuse to be a willing participant in their treatment and recovery, the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that treatment doesn’t need to be voluntary to be effective. In some cases, sanctions and pressure from family, friends, or the justice system have increased treatment attendance, retention rates, and success in treatment.15
Is It Ever Too Late to Help Someone with a Substance Use Disorder?
It’s never too late to help someone with a substance use disorder. However, it’s important that you manage your expectations. It may take more than one conversation for your loved one to agree to seek help. After that, it may take time before they find a treatment facility or healthcare professional to fit their specific needs.16 Go into the process with patience.
There isn’t a cure for substance misuse, but it can be managed successfully through effective, evidence-based treatment.18 Understand that if your loved one relapses, it doesn’t mean treatment failed.17 Relapse, a return to drug or alcohol misuse, happens.17 Continue to be supportive, remain informed, and be helpful—all while maintaining boundaries.