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Steps to Help Someone with a Drinking Problem

Mental Health
Author name: Catherine Murtagh-Schaffer, PA

Ever wonder if someone you care about has a problem with alcohol? Especially now that the holidays are over but this person continues to consume alcohol like the festivities never stopped? 

When people have uncontrolled and problematic drinking, they may have a health condition called alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

In plain terms, AUD is alcoholism, says Catherine Murtagh-Schaffer, a Lee Health physician assistant who serves as the program lead for the opioid disorder treatment and substance abuse response team.

She also writes a weekly column for The News-Press on addiction.

“Alcoholism is the term used when the body is physically dependent upon alcohol, and withdrawal will occur if drinking is stopped abruptly,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. “Physical dependence is determined by a number of factors, such as how much and how often alcohol is regularly consumed, and genetic determinants. AUD, or alcoholism, can range from mild to severe, and can cause lasting changes in the brain .”

Who’s at Risk for AUD?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that raises blood alcohol levels to a certain point: Typically after four drinks for women and five drinks for men in about two hours.

The good news is that effective treatment can help heal the brain and give people with alcohol problems the skills and support they need to recover.

If the person does have an alcohol problem, the best thing you can do is be open and honest with them. Hoping the person will get better on their own won’t change the situation. 

“Fortunately, we now have new medications that can help alcohol addiction in combination with counseling or 12-step programs,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. 

Follow these tips for helping a family member or friend who has a drinking problem:

Step 1: Talk 

  • Choose the right time and place to have the conversation. Choose a place that’s quiet and private. Make sure your person is sober and, preferably, not in crisis at the moment.

  • Talk about your concerns by trying to say what you think or feel, like "I am concerned about your drinking." Using “I” statements reduces accusation. Instead of saying, “You’re an alcoholic and you need to get help now,” you can say, “I love you and you’re very important to me. I’m concerned about how much you’re drinking, and it may be harming your health.”

  • Stick with the facts. Some people find it helpful just to get information. You could say, "I want to share some things I've learned about older adults and alcohol."

  • Try to stay away from labels like "alcoholic."

  • Ask if you can go to the doctor with your family member or friend.

Step 2: Offer Your Support

  • Suggest things to do that don't include drinking.

  • Encourage counseling or attending a group meeting. Offer to drive to and from these support meetings. Realize that you can’t force someone who doesn’t want to go into treatment. All you can do is offer your help. It’s up to them to decide if they’ll take it. Be nonjudgmental, empathetic, and sincere. Imagine yourself in the same situation and what your reaction might be.

  • However, actions are more important than words. Urge the person to get into a formal treatment program. Ask for concrete commitments and then follow up on them.

  • Give your support during treatment.

  • Keep in mind that treatment of alcohol use disorder is a continual process. For you, that means remaining available while your friend or family member continues therapy. Offer to attend support meetings with them, if they’re comfortable with it. Or maybe offer to help out with work, childcare, or household responsibilities so they can attend treatment sessions.

  • Continue to support your friend or family member’s progress after formal treatment ends. Stay invested in their long-term recovery.

Step 3: Take Care of Yourself

  • You need support, too. Think about what you need to stay safe and healthy.

  • Involve other family members or friends so you are not in this alone. Talk honestly about how you are feeling. Try to say what support or help you need.

  • Try going to counseling or special meetings that offer support to families and friends of people with drinking problems. There may be programs at your local hospital or clinic. For example, Al-Anon is a support group for friends and family of people with a drinking problem. Find a meeting near you by calling 1-888-425-2666

Ultimately, you must remember you do not have control over another person’s addiction.  Until they are ready to receive help for their addiction no amount of nagging, cajoling or pressure is going to force them into change.  

Learn more about Lee Health’s Recovery Medicine and Addiction Services:

Recovery Medicine/Addiction Services
12550 New Brittany Blvd.
Suite 201
Fort Myers, FL 33907
Call: 239-343-9190

More Info

  • To assess whether you or a loved one have AUD, here are some questions to ask. In the past year, have you: 
  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink? More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?