A Guide to Helping Your Friends Open Up About Drugs

By Sophia, an 18-year-old Teen Link volunteer phone worker

When You’re Worried About a Friend…

If you’re worried about your friend using substances—like pot or alcohol—it’s important that you reach out to them, especially if you think you’re one of few people aware of their substance use. However, it can be difficult to encourage a friend to seek help without unintentionally coming off as judgmental or overreacting.

Before you connect with them, it may be helpful to inform yourself on the effects of what they’re using—with resources like You Can or NIDA for Teens—as you’ll be able to have a more knowledgeable conversation. You don’t want to sound like you’re giving a lecture or reciting facts from a textbook—but gaining a greater understanding of how drugs affect the brain will help you approach the situation with more confidence.

Another thing that may help you have a productive exchange is if you come prepared with specific “evidence” of their substance use to back up your concern. People struggling with substances often don’t want to recognize or admit they have a problem, but it will be harder for them to dismiss you if you have tangible examples of how their use is worrying.

What to Watch Out For…

Signs of substance misuse:

  • Changes in use—like heightened tolerance of substances, getting drunk or high on a regular basis, or using alone
  • Social changes—like missing events, avoiding friends who don’t use, pressuring others to use, or withdrawing from friends and family
  • Behavioral changes—like increased risk taking, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, apathy towards hobbies, decreased motivation for school and sports, or sudden mood swings
  • Physical changes—like more frequent hangovers, rapid change in weight, unkempt appearance, or flu-like symptoms without actually being ill
  • Defensive behavior—like lying about substance use, blaming others for irresponsible actions, rationalizing their alcohol or drug use, or hiding substances
Preparing to Talk to Them…

When you feel ready to approach your friend, consider doing so with another person you trust and who knows your friend well. This will make it more difficult for your friend to deny their substance misuse or minimize your concern, as there are two people advocating for them to get help.

However, be careful that you don’t come across as “ganging-up” on your friend, or they may shut down. Likewise, ensure that both you and your intervention buddy are coordinated regarding treating your friend in a kind, non-judgmental way.

Finally, be sure to have some ideas for further resources and treatment before initiating the conversation, as well as potential trusted adults you and your friend could turn to. If your friend admits that they need help, you want to be able to support them in forming an action plan.

Possible resources:

  • Teen Link
    Speak to a trained teen volunteer and receive support from an experienced substance use prevention clinician, 1-866-TEENLINK [833-6546]
  • Washington Recovery Line
    24-hour support for substance misuse, problem gambling, and mental health, 1-866-789-1511

You can also research detox centers, rehabilitation centers, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous near you. And remember, addiction is a disease—not a choice—so it’s necessary that you treat your friend accordingly, with empathy.

When You’re Having the Conversation…

When it comes time to actually reach out to your friend, make sure to meet somewhere private and safe where you can speak uninterrupted. Try to be persuasive rather than argumentative, especially if your friend becomes upset.

Don’t blame things on them or get angry—even though those may be entirely valid reactions! Just focus on compassionately sharing your concerns. If they admit that they are struggling with substance use, receive them with warmth, gratitude, and support. Provide a space for them to talk—if they want—and listen to them without judgement. This conversation can help you understand if their health is currently at risk, and if you need to immediately reach out to a help line or trusted adult.

When they’re ready, you can speak with them about next steps. Discuss if there’s a trusted adult or family member they’d be willing to reach out to, as that will give them the most stable support system and easier access to recovery resources. You can also suggest some of the resources you researched, but don’t overwhelm them with decisions. If they don’t have anyone they feel safe or willing to tell, you can encourage them to call Teen Link, the Washington Recovery Line, or any other reliable help line. A trained phone worker will be able to provide them with local, accessible resources, provide emotional support, and help come up with an actionable plan.

If your friend doesn’t acknowledge your concerns or see their use as problematic, let them know that you’re still seriously worried about their health and safety and will be there to support them if they change their mind. You can also tell them—if you truly mean it—that they can come to you in an emergency, like if they’re thinking of driving home under the influence or concerned that they’re overdosing, and you’ll help them, no questions asked. But remember, it’s also important that you know your boundaries. Being a good friend does not mean that you have to sacrifice your own mental well-being or life stability to help someone else out.

After the conversation ends, you can call a help line for advice and more strategies tailored to your specific situation. If you’re ever seriously concerned about their safety or feel overwhelmed, contact a trusted adult.

If you are or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are free, 24/7 services that can help.

To learn more about Teen Link and how to become a volunteer, visit www.teenlink.org.