Something seems off about your loved one.
Lately, they’ve been disappearing without explaining why. When you ask where they’ve been, they give you vague answers. You have been arguing a lot more—often for reasons that feel blown out of proportion. They’ve stopped taking care of themselves.
And, most recently, you’ve noticed some other concerning changes: They have increased their use of alcohol or use it at times of day when they never did before. You have found an unlabeled bottle of pills.
You think your loved one may be showing signs of addiction, and you don’t know how to help.
In 2020, 40.3 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder (SUD). Substance use can produce changes in the brain that lead to recurrent use of substances despite adverse and harmful consequences.
Addiction—the recurrent use of substances despite harmful consequences—can cause difficulties in a person’s function, mental state, and relationships.
Shelly F. Greenfield, MD, MPH, is a Mass General Brigham addiction psychiatrist, clinician, and researcher. She’s also chief academic officer and director of the Alcohol, Drug, and Addiction Health Research and Education program at McLean Hospital.
Dr. Greenfield shares important risk factors for having an SUD, describes signs of addiction to watch for, and explores effective addiction treatment options.
“Addiction does not discriminate,” says Dr. Greenfield. “It affects all people everywhere, across the country and around the globe, across all sociodemographic groups, across all genders, races, and ethnicities.”
But there are five main risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop a substance use disorder. These are:
If you suspect you or a loved one may be showing signs of addiction, it’s important to seek the right kind of addiction treatment. Watch this video to learn more about SUDs and addiction.
“A substance use disorder is a medical condition that is diagnosed, like other medical conditions, by a constellation of symptoms across several different domains,” Dr. Greenfield explains. Those symptoms include:
Signs of addiction can include:
You may also observe behavioral changes, like:
Please note: This is not an all-inclusive list.
We can also identify signs of substance problems in ourselves—although often this can be much harder to do. Dr. Greenfield explains that if you suspect you may have a problem with substances, you may consider asking yourself:
“If you’re thinking about any of those things, or worrying and wondering about them, it’s a really good idea to talk with a trusted clinician who can help you assess whether substances are creating problems for you in your life and whether you have a substance use disorder,” Dr. Greenfield says.
Addiction treatment is a particular kind of care given to people struggling with addiction and substance use disorders. Depending on your insurance and the institution where you seek treatment, the out-of-pocket cost for addiction treatment can vary.
“Mass General Brigham offers many excellent treatments available for substance use disorders that are based on decades of research, including medication treatments and behavioral treatments,” says Dr. Greenfield. These include:
“In many cases, clinicians will be able to provide treatment from their offices,” says Dr. Greenfield. “Other times, it will be important for a person to have more services, and those can actually take place as inpatient or residential programs, or in outpatient programs. It depends on what will be most helpful to an individual with substance use disorder to get them well and help them stay well.”
Beyond these therapies, Dr. Greenfield explains that people struggling with addiction have other options. “Mutual health therapies can also be helpful to patients,” Dr. Greenfield explains. “Those include things like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.”
"Treatment for substance use disorder works,” says Dr. Greenfield. “There are effective treatments available for patients and their families.”
It is important to remember that recovery is not a linear process. People with substance disorders may need a range of treatments over time as is true with many health conditions. With the right support and resources at hand, recovery from addiction is possible—and it’s within reach.