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How to Help an Alcoholic: Practical Resources For Loved Ones

Table of Contents

Key Points

How to Help an Alcoholic & Other Alcoholism Support Resources

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition where someone is unable to stop or control their alcohol use despite it causing negative consequences in their relationships, health, or work. No matter if alcohol use is categorized as mild or severe, there are evidence-based therapies, support groups, and medication that can help someone struggling with AUD reach and maintain recovery.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition where those who struggle with it are unable to stop or control their alcohol use despite it causing negative consequences in their relationships, health, or work. Alcohol is one of the most used drugs in the world and is the most common substance use disorder in the United States. 

According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, almost 28.8 million adults over the age of 18 had an alcohol use disorder in 2021, which is 11.2% of the population.[1]

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

The following are signs that someone you love may be drinking too much and have an alcohol use disorder [2]

Risk Factors for Alcohol Addictions

Talking About Alcohol Use

It can feel stressful and scary thinking about talking to your loved one about their alcohol use. The best way to start the conversation is to go into it with a plan. Keep in mind that for most people, it is hard to hear criticism about ourselves. 

One who struggles with an alcohol problem may feel attacked, hurt, or betrayed. Just because the initial conversation may not go well does not mean they didn’t hear you and are thinking about the items you shared.[4] Things to consider include: 

Your loved one may reject any help offered or deny having a problem. Some people decide that if their initial conversation does not lead to change, they will stage an intervention. This should be planned, preferably with professional help. A mental health therapist, a healthcare provider, or a religious/spiritual advisor are all professionals who may be qualified to discuss intervention plans. Interventions can escalate into conflict, which should be avoided as they are unlikely to result in any productive change. 

Alcohol Rehab Resources

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Treatment Options

Researching alcohol rehabs and choosing the one that will support you or your loved one’s needs is important. Someone seeking treatment should feel comfortable with their treatment provider. While choosing to seek treatment is a critical first step, the approach used by the treatment program also plays a significant role in the effectiveness of the treatment. Successful programs typically avoid heavy confrontation and instead incorporate empathy and motivational support, emphasizing personal change in drinking behaviors.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy often consists of a combination of individual, group, and family therapy sessions.[5]  The focus of sessions is on teaching skills to become sober, maintain abstinence from substance use, help to build a strong social support network and navigate situations and triggers without relapsing to drugs or alcohol. 

Types of behavioral therapy that have been shown to be effective in treating AUD include: 

Support Groups

Mutual-support groups or peer support groups are programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other similar 12-step programs that help the people attending cut back, quit, or maintain their sobriety. [6]  Support groups can add valuable assistance to those in recovery, especially when combined with other professional care.

Medication

Inpatient VS Outpatient

Outpatient treatment may involve individual health professionals (medical doctors and mental health therapists) or outpatient community treatment programs. These services are usually billed by the hour and may or may not be covered by insurance. 

Inpatient addiction treatment programs may be located at a hospital, a residential rehab center, or other form of inpatient setting where the patient will reside for a specified number of days.[8] These services are usually billed by the day, week, or month and may or may not be covered by insurance.

Seek Support

Being a caregiver to someone with an alcohol use disorder can be stressful. As important as it is to seek support for your loved one, you may also want to get help for yourself. Friends and family members may be positive supports for you, but there are also support groups for people who have family members with substance use disorders.

Al-Anon and Alateen are two of the oldest and free support groups that meet throughout the United States. [9] They provide support for anyone who has been affected by someone else’s alcohol misuse or addiction. There are numerous other in-person and online groups that support specific population groups, such as parents, family members, and friends.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Help an Alcoholic

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines the standard drink amount to be:[10]

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content).
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content).
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content).
  • 1.5 ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, vodka, rum, tequila, whiskey, brandy).

Alcohol withdrawal is experienced by about half of the people with an alcohol use disorder who stop or significantly reduce their alcohol consumption. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually start six to twenty-four hours after stopping heavy, long-term alcohol use and last 24-72 hours.[11]

Symptoms include: 

  • Headache
  • Anxiety, nervousness, or irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive sweating
  • Upset stomach
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hyperthermia (high body temperature)
  • Tremor (shakiness) of hands or other body parts
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Delirium

 

Mild withdrawal symptoms may be managed from home. Moderate symptoms may benefit from medications that reduce symptoms, particularly to reduce the risk of tremors or seizures. For severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, hospitalization should be sought to reduce the risks of life-threatening complications. 

Chronic alcohol users tend to have difficulty with the following: 

  • Memory Formation: The ability to form new memories.
  • Abstract Thinking: The ability to think in a manner that is not directly tied to concrete things. 
  • Problem-Solving: The ability to have the mental flexibility to find solutions to problems. 
  • Attention & Concentration: The ability to focus attention and maintain concentration, particularly with visual tasks. 
  • Perception of Emotion: The ability to recognize and interpret the emotions of others.

 

Once someone stops drinking, they may begin to recover some functions in the first one to two months. That is when the peak of mental function recovery is seen. Long-term mental functioning deficits are called alcohol amnesic disorder. More severe cases can be classified as dementia associated with alcohol use. [12]

Recovery is Possible

There are numerous treatment options for alcohol use disorder. Alcohol Support can include inpatient and outpatient programs, behavioral therapy, medication, and support groups for both those seeking treatment and their family members supporting them. It is possible to experience long-term recovery from alcohol use disorder. 

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