How to Help an Alcoholic

How to Help an Alcoholic

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

How to Help an Alcoholic

Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder can affect people of all races, genders, and economic backgrounds. An alcoholic has a physical and psychological dependence on drinking1 Despite alcohol causing issues and individuals struggling to control their drinking, they persist with consuming alcohol. An alcoholic’s problems can be so severe that they affect daily tasks, jobs, and relationships. However, some people are able to hide their alcoholism and drink without people realizing they are consuming significant amounts of alcohol.

An individual’s alcohol use disorder can vary in degrees from mild to severe. A person’s drinking patterns can start out mild before blossoming into something more serious. The earlier a person undergoes treatment and intervention, the more likely they are to receive help for the disorder. Although any journey to sobriety is down to the individual, friends and family can certainly help them along the way.

Understanding alcoholism

Before you can help an alcoholic get the help they need, you must learn about and understand alcohol misuse disorder2 Alcoholism is more than simply drinking too much beer, wine, or spirits on occasions. For some people, alcohol is a coping tool allowing them to socialize with people more easily, others find that it helps them switch off, some drink for no explainable or rational reason. Oftentimes an alcoholic will simply drink to chase blackout. That elusive switch that shuts out reality, if only for a short space of time. Alcoholics tend not to drink in moderation. Instead of having one drink, they must have multiple drinks and often consume alcohol until they are intoxicated. One of the indicators of an alcoholic is speed drinking. Powering through a bottle of wine before others have finished one glass, or just drinking more and more, oblivious to how much others are consuming at the same time.

How to help an alcoholic long term

It is important to be as supportive as possible toward the individual you are trying to help. It is vital to avoid using any negative and/or harmful language. An alcoholic needs to feel supported if they are going to get better. Many people who struggle with alcohol will deny needing help. They will create reasons they are fine. It is important to have responses to their questions and statements prepared. In addition, you need to remain clear headed and calm when approaching an alcoholic about treatment. If you’re trying to help an alcoholic you are embarking on an often thankless task. The term ‘alcoholic’ carries such negative stigma that it’s hard for someone to admit, and usually it takes some significant destruction, financial loss, relationship breakdowns, business failure or problems with the law for an individual to realize they may have an issue. Sometimes it takes one alcoholic in recovery to speak to another in active addiction to allow them to identify with certain aspects of what alcoholism actually is.3

Timing is everything to help and alcoholic

Approaching an alcoholic about treatment needs to be done at the right time. You cannot just approach them whenever you have free time. Your conversation should be in a quiet, safe place that is private. In addition, you want to avoid being interrupted while speaking. Make sure the individual is sober when meeting.

Be compassionate

As a friend or loved one, you must be compassionate and caring. An alcoholic won’t change their lifestyle if you are demanding and threaten them. Tell the individual that you are worried about them. Explain that you want to support them through recovery. Alcoholics often deny that they have any type of problem. Oftentimes, they become angry and can lash out. It is important not to take their comments personally. Instead, understand where they are coming from by being compassionate.

Provide support to help an alcoholic

You can never force an alcoholic into treatment. It is important to provide support and help. Once you have provided them with support, they will make the decision on whether to attend rehab or not. You should be empathetic, nonjudgmental, and sincere towards your loved one. Oftentimes, alcoholics make promises and vows when pressured into going to rehab. However, those promises are often broken. You need concrete commitments that are followed up on. In addition, you should try to rally other friends and family members to provide support.


Some people prefer to use an intervention when approaching an alcoholic about their drinking, and sometimes this is a useful way to help an alcoholic think about treatment. An intervention is much different than simply approaching an individual one-to-one4 Interventions involve planning, presenting treatment options, sharing stories of how the individual’s drinking affects others, and giving consequences of what will occur if change doesn’t happen. An intervention may be used if the alcoholic is resistant to going to rehab. Friends, family members, and co-workers get together during an intervention to confront the individual. The individual with alcohol use disorder is urged to receive treatment. Professional counselors often assist during an intervention.

Alcohol use disorder journey

Alcohol use disorder treatment is ongoing. It doesn’t end after attending rehab. A recovery program gives an alcoholic the tools to deal with the issue. However, the treatment journey is long and winding. You may attend meetings or support groups with your loved one following rehab. You can assist them by volunteering to help with household tasks, childcare, and other items, so they can attend treatment. Supporting your loved one during and after treatment is vital to helping them recover fully. One of the key areas in which you can support your loved one is by avoiding alcohol use. Leading by example is one of the best ways to offer support.

How to tell if a loved one is an alcoholic

You need to understand and recognize the symptoms of alcohol use disorder to help an alcoholic. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V or DSM 5) is used to diagnose a substance use disorder such as alcoholism.

There are 11 criteria used to determine the level of severity a person has when it comes to addiction.

Ask yourself the following questions to determine if a loved one has an alcohol use disorder:


  • Is your loved one drinking more than they intend to?
  • Have they ever attempted to abstain from alcohol, but failed?
  • Do they spend a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from alcohol consumption?
  • Do they ever experience cravings or urges to drink alcohol?
  • Have you noticed their drinking affect work, home, or school?
  • Do they continue drinking even when it causes problems to relationships?
  • Have they given up important recreational, occupational, or social activities due to drinking alcohol?
  • Do they continue drinking even if the drinking puts them in dangerous situations?
  • Has their tolerance to alcohol grown over time?
  • Have you noticed them going through alcohol withdrawal symptoms?
  • Do they continue drinking even if it causes a physical or psychological issue or makes it worse?


If you answered “yes” to two to three questions, it may indicate the individual has a form of alcohol use disorder.

To help your loved one, it is important to find the right way of approaching them. Try to put yourself in their situation before approaching them about the situation. It could change your perspective and enable you to speak to them more compassionately.

Finding happiness and still help an alcoholic in your life

References: How to help and alcoholic

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  2. American Psychiatric Association . Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder. Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 1994. []
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  4. Carlen PL, Wortzman G, Holgate RC, et al. Reversible cerebral atrophy in recently abstinent chronic alcoholics measured by computed tomography scans. Science. 1978;200:1076–1078. []
  5. Harper C. Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency and associated brain damage is still common throughout the world and prevention is simple and safe! European Journal of Neurology. 2006;13:1078–1082. [PubMed] []
  6. Harper CG, Kril JJ. Neuropathological changes in alcoholics. In: Hunt WA, Nixon SJ, editors. Alcohol Induced Brain Damage: NIAAA Research Monograph No. 22. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Health; 1993. pp. 39–69. []
  7. Lancaster FE. Ethanol and white matter damage in the brain. In: Hunt WA, Nixon SJ, editors. Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage: NIAAA Research Monograph No. 22. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Health; 1993. pp. 387–399. []
  8. Lim KO, Pfefferbaum A. Segmentation of MR brain images into cerebrospinal fluid spaces, white and gray matter. Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography. 1989;13:588–593. [PubMed] []
  9. Puddey IB, Rakic V, Dimmitt SB, Bellin LJ. Influence of pattern of drinking on cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular risk factors: A review. Addiction. 1999;94(5):649–663. [PubMed] []
  10. Oscar-Berman M. How to Help an Alcoholic. Alcohol Health and Research World. 1992;16:273–279. []
  11. Ryan C, Butters N. Cognitive deficits in alcoholics. In: Kissin B, Begleiter H, editors. The Pathogenesis of Alcoholism. New York: Plenum Publishing Corporation; 1983. pp. 485–538. []
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