Help for friends who drink too much

Originally Published: April 21, 2000 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: February 19, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I have two friends who I think are drinking too much. I don't know what to do. They are very defensive should anyone say anything to them about their excessive habit, and a lot of our friends are giving up on them. This has become a daily thing and their schoolwork and friendships are all suffering. They are both twenty-one; one recently broke up with his girlfriend of several years and the other has been single for a while and he hates it. I know that has a lot to do with it. Please suggest some non-intrusive ways to help them. I'm really at a loss.

Thank you, A concerned friend

Dear A concerned friend,

It sounds like you really care about your friends and that you have their best interests at heart. While it's not unusual for people to get defensive when friends approach them about excessive drinking, it can feel less daunting if you come prepared before you have the conversation. There are a number of different techniques that can be helpful when approaching your friends about their drinking. First, it’s important to keep in mind what's comfortable for you, how well you know your friends, and what you know has (or hasn't) been successful in the past.

Here are some pointers to get you started:

  • Approach each of your friends separately. Although it might seem like their situations are similar, they are sure to appreciate being treated as unique individuals.
  • Choose times when your friends are sober. This may be a challenge, since you mention that they're drinking to excess daily. Perhaps you can invite them out for breakfast, or to a coffee shop, where they might be less likely or able to drink.
  • Talk with your friends in a quiet, private environment. This may provide you an opportunity to concentrate and decrease possible feelings of embarrassment or self-consciousness for your friends. No one likes to have these things pointed out to them in front of a staring crowd of on-lookers or eavesdropping restaurant diners.
  • Research resources. Before talking with your friends, investigate the resources available. Find out if the counseling service at your school has drop-in hours, if any self-help or support groups meet on or near your campus, and if there's a substance abuse prevention specialist available. Not only could these services be helpful to your friend, but they can help to prepare you to talk with your friend. If you're a Columbia student on the Morningside campus, you can contact Counseling and Psychological Services at 212-854-2878 or take advantage of free sessions with a Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist to help develop strategies for maintaining a healthy relationship with alcohol and/or other drugs. To help guide your conversation, you may want to look over the online alcohol assessment to find information on lower risk drinking and connect campus and community resources. If you’re a student on the CUMC campus, check out the AI:MS program or the Mental Health Service at 212-305-3400.  If you're not a student at Columbia, try practicing your conversation with a counselor or therapist at your school, with another concerned friend, or with a supportive family member. Additional information about substance abuse issues is available from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  • Be specific. Tell your friends what you've noticed about their behavior and what concerns you. For example, you could say, "I've noticed that lately you've been drinking a lot, and often. I'm worried because it seems like it's having an effect on your schoolwork." 
  • Identify their behavior, rather than criticizing their character. Say, "Your drinking seems to be getting in the way of your friendships," rather than, "You're a drunk and a real loser." Tell them how their drinking affects you. Very often, people don't realize that their behavior has an impact on other people. Tell your friends how their excessive drinking has made you feel, how it's affecting your day-to-day life, and how it could affect your friendship. Use "I" statements such as, "I don't feel comfortable with the way you've been drinking lately. I find it hard to spend time with you because when you're drunk, you act like a different person." 
  • Explore some of the underlying causes for their drinking. Your perception is a great asset. You are right to think that your friends' romantic frustrations could be contributing to their excessive drinking. Very often people turn to drugs (including alcohol) when faced with extra stress, heartache, or fear. Your friends’ likely need to find other ways of coping — and talking with you about their worries can be a first step. You can start the conversation with, "Hey, I know you've been under a lot of stress lately. What's going on?"; or, "How have you been feeling since you and _________ broke up?" 
  • Challenge your friends to think about their behavior. They may be drinking out of habit, since it's sometimes hard to try something new. Or, maybe they're so overwhelmed with their troubles that they don't know what else to do. You can offer to hang out with your friends, step in when the urge to drink strikes, or plan diversions. You can also ask your friends to try drinking less. Some people have success suggesting that a friend "test" their habit by going out and relaxing, without getting drunk. 
  • Present options. Your friends might not be ready to spill their guts right away. They also might not want to admit that they may have a drinking problem. If you've opened up the door, though, they'll be more likely to look to you for help when they are ready. You can offer specific assistance, or simply make an open-ended offer. Here are some examples that others have found useful:
    • "I would be happy to go with you to a counselor. We could even call together now to make an appointment."
    • "Well, just know that I'm thinking of you. If you need anything, let me know, okay?"
    • "I've heard that there's an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting right here on campus. Maybe you could go check it out — and I could come if that would be helpful."
    • "There's this really cool web site that has loads of information about ways to drink in a healthy way. Feel free to check it out on my computer."

You can use any or all of these suggestions. The bottom line, though, is that your friends will need to recognize for themselves the ways in which their drinking is interfering with the rest of their lives. You can be supportive and offer suggestions, but they have to be motivated from within, too. Also, be sensitive to your own needs during this time. It's important to set limits as to how much time and energy you are going to put into trying to help these friends. In the long run, this will prevent you from becoming tired, resentful, or overwhelmed, and you will also be modeling some healthy self-care behavior.

For some more information about how to identify healthy and unhealthy drinking, see Trouble controlling my drinking in the Go Ask Alice!  archive. How can I help my alcoholic family member?, Friend of an alcohol abuser, and Bothered by boyfriend's steroid use offer more suggestions for talking with friends or family about concerns with their drinking or drug habits.

For more general information on alcohol, check out Columbia Health’s information page about alcohol and other drugs. You can also check out the Go Ask Alice! Alcohol & Other Drugs archives. 

Good luck,

Alice