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Substance Abuse—What to Look for and How to Get Help

Published on Jan 07, 2020
Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1 in 12 adults (18.7 million) had a substance use disorder in 2017. In addition, more people received treatment for a substance use disorder in 2017 than in 2016. Although the road to recovery has its challenges, resources and treatment are available to help people succeed.

Read on to learn more about substance use disorder, how to identify the red flags, and what you can do if you or someone you know suffers from a substance problem.

What is substance use disorder?

Substance use disorder is a term that captures a range of substance use issues. These may include substance misuse, abuse, dependence, and the most severe form—addiction. Substances can include alcohol, tobacco, and drugs (illegal or prescription).

A substance abuse problem can lead to changes in a person’s normal desires, priorities, and behavior. This can make it difficult to go to work or school and maintain relationships with family and friends.

What does a substance abuse problem look like?

When trying to identify a substance abuse problem, there are some things to consider or look for. Are you or is someone you know:

  • Using the substance in larger amounts or for longer than intended to get the desired effect?
  • Having cravings and urges to keep using the substance?
  • Trying to cut down or stop using the substance but can’t―even when continued use interferes with relationships or with physical or mental health?
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, and recovering from the substance?
  • Giving up responsibilities at work, school, or home because of substance use?
  • Missing out on important social, recreational, or work-related activities because of substance use?
  • Having withdrawal symptoms and taking more of the substance to control those symptoms?

Substance abuse may look different in teens
The following signs may look like a normal part of puberty, but in fact could point to substance abuse problems. Some of the signs parents of teens should be on the lookout for include:

  • A change in their circle of friends.
  • Carelessness in grooming.
  • Poor performance in school (declining grades, missing classes, skipping school).
  • Disinterest in favorite activities.
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits.

Intervening early when you first spot signs of drug use in your teen is critical, as addiction can have a lasting impact on a teen’s brain in areas related to learning, memory, behavior control, judgment, and decision-making. With a teen’s brain health on the line, don’t wait until they become addicted to get help.

What if you have a substance abuse problem?

If you are dealing with substance abuse, the first step is asking for help. This can take a lot of courage, but seeking help and getting the treatment you may need can help you regain control over your life. Here’s what you can do to get started:

  • Make an appointment with your healthcare provider. You can ask if they are comfortable discussing substance abuse screening and treatment with you. If not, ask for a referral to see a different healthcare provider.
  • Contact an addiction specialist. In the US, there are 3,500 board-certified healthcare providers who specialize in treating addiction. You can use the Find a Physician feature on the American Society of Addiction Medicine website to find one near you.

How can you help someone with an addiction?

If you suspect someone you know has an addiction, it’s important to keep in mind that substance abuse is not likely an issue that you can fix for them by yourself. However, there may be a few things you can do to help:

  1. Be patient and loving. Try not to preach, lecture, threaten, plead, bribe, or place guilt on them. This may help conversations go more smoothly.
  2. Offer support. If they have come to you asking for help, know that this is an important first step that has taken a great amount of courage. Assure them that treatment can work. Also let them know that you’ll be there for them to offer support and encouragement on their courageous journey toward recovery.
  3. Help locate resources. These can include:
    • Appropriate healthcare providers who deal with addiction. You can leave this information with them or help them use the Find a Physician feature on the American Society of Addiction Medicine website to find a healthcare provider near them.
    • Treatment or recovery centers. You can help them use the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website.
  4. Consider an intervention. Interventions can be very effective in getting people who do not want help with addiction into treatment. They can range from a one-on-one conversation to an organized gathering of family, friends, and health professionals.
  5. Don’t do it alone. You can’t fix this for them. Bringing in a professional, such as a healthcare professional, therapist, or clergy member, may help with the process.
  6. Encourage them to join a support group. Talking to other people going through similar circumstances may help them feel like they are not alone.
  7. Set boundaries. It’s okay to set some rules. For example, you can refuse to lend them money or allow them to come around if they are drunk or high. This may allow you to regain some control in your life and protect your own health and well-being.

Whether you or someone you know is dealing with substance abuse, know that you are not alone. Resources are available to help. Recovery is possible—people recover every day.


  • 1. National Council for Behavioral Health. SAMHSA Releases National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Accessed November 20, 2019.
  • 2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics. Accessed November 20, 2019.
  • 3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  • 4. MedlinePlus. Substance Use Disorder. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  • 5. National Institute of Mental Health. Substance Use and Mental Health. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  • 6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Common Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  • 7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  • 8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. If You Have a Problem with Drugs: For Adults. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  • 9. PsychCentral. How To Help The Addict Who Doesn’t Want Help. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  • 10. Harvard Health Publishing. When a loved one has an addiction. Accessed November 11, 2019.
  • 11. MedlinePlus. Helping a loved one with a drinking problem. Accessed November 11, 2019.
  • 12. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. What Is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families. Accessed November 11, 2019.
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