How to help a friend who is struggling with alcohol and other drugs?

The cliché that almost every college student is familiar with is the idea that college is a time of exploration and personal growth. Like most clichés, there’s a grain of truth to it. For many students, the beginning of college is a pivotal moment when independence is established and we begin making decisions for ourselves (though sometimes, we call home and run those decisions past whoever is listening in a state of panic).

These personal choices can lead us to new hobbies such as rock climbing, finding a passion in knitting, or meeting new people. Students participating in Greek Life are welcomed with many new brothers and sisters; students with a new living environment have the opportunity to befriend randomly assigned roommates and neighbors. However, the opportunities to form healthy hobbies and relationships comes hand-in-hand with opportunities to experiment and form unhealthy habits. Alcohol and drugs become overwhelmingly accessible and partying becomes a stereotypical image associated with college. While some college students refrain from creating dangerous relationships with drugs and alcohol, many students do need some help recognizing their self-sabotaging patterns and seeking change.

Question: When should I be concerned about my or a friend’s substance use?

One sign that may indicate a friend’s substance abuse involves his or her increasing frequency of use or consistent high-frequency of use. For example, a friend could go from drinking alcohol once a week, to three times a week, and begin engaging in binge drinking during those occurrences. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse defines binge drinking as 4 drinks in the span of two hours for females and 5 drinks in the span of 2 hours for males.

Another sign that your friend’s substance use may be problematic: you notice him or her using substances to cope and get through week. College students encounter personal and academic stress on a daily basis; how one chooses to handle this stress is a determining factor for individual health and wellbeing. Using substances to cope with stress is a negative coping strategy that only masks the problem without addressing it. Not being able to begin or end the day without smoking marijuana (or becoming irritable and unable to sleep if cut out of the day), consistently making plans that revolve around drinking to “get over that midterm” or “forget about that person”, or knowing that going out and drinking means becoming blacked-out drunk are all signs of unhealthy substance use patterns. If someone’s substance use patterns are comparable, in frequency or necessity, to a cup of coffee, then it is likely they are abusing a substance.

Question: How can I help a friend, or ask for help for myself?

  1. If you are worried about a friend’s substance patterns, seek advice. There are ample resources on campus that can be utilized to discuss you or your friend’s substance abuse patterns and to create a game plan on how to proceed. Campus counseling services and PULSE, staffed with certified peer educators, will always keep your discussion confidential and support you in this process.
  2. Find an appropriate time to have a discussion. There will never be a “perfect” moment to have this discussion, especially in regards to a touchy subject. However, keeping friends accountable for their actions helps them grow. It is essential to make sure you and your friend are both sober and in an appropriate setting where you two can be alone to talk about these serious matters (probably not the common room in the dorms).
  3. Willpower, willpower, willpower. Odds are you do not want to have this conversation, and neither do they; but, having the strength to initiate this conversation will show your genuine concern for his or her personal wellbeing. Make sure you are receiving the support you need in order to support a friend. Continuing to utilize campus services is a great, confidential way to receive support.
  4. Come from a place of love and keep the conversation personal. Instead of starting the conversation by telling your friend that he or she is a sloppy drunk or that they need to stop “waking and baking,” let go of the name-calling and let them know that you are truly there to listen and provide support. Let them know that you have observed the negative effects that their substance use has had upon them, including alcohol-related health issues (i.e. transported to the hospital), a drop in grades and academic success, and isolation from friends and family.
  5. Be prepared for denial. Your friend may not be in a place where they are ready to accept that they have a problem, so being told that you have observed them hitting a low can impose on them feelings of shame and embarassment. Remind your friend that substance use does not reflect who they are or their personal worth, and that substance dependency is an obstacle that can be conquered and overcome.
  6. Stick with them. Seeking and accepting help is a personal decision only they can make, but you can be there to support them. You can offer to walk them to counseling or even attend meetings with them (if the organization offers that). Help eliminate any opportunities to use a substance by finding alternatives (make dinner together and watch a movie instead of hitting up a party; practice yoga or deep breathing together instead or smoking marijuana). The key is to provide fun and exciting alternatives to situations that may involve substance use, rather than telling your friend to “just stop.” It is much easier to replace a negative habit with a positive habit. There will be slip-ups and moments of weakness; stay with them through those times and choose to offer support rather than criticism.

If you have any questions regarding the help of a friend with a substance abuse problem, feel free to reach out to any or all of Cal Poly’s Campus Resources:

  • PULSE
  • Counseling Services
  • BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students)
  • Alcohol Anonymous
  • Student Omnbuds Service

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