You can conduct mental health first aid on someone struggling with alcohol abuse by providing assessment, information and support until professional help arrives.
About 15.1 million adults have an alcohol use disorder and about 80,000 people of those struggling with alcohol dependence pass away each year. About 86.4% of people over the age of 18 admit that they have tried alcohol at some point during their lives, while 70.1% admit to drinking alcohol within the past year.
Mental health first aid for alcohol abuse teaches people how to recognize signs of an alcohol use disorder, educates about difficulties related to alcohol intoxication and instructs how to help those already showing a dependence on alcohol. Mental health first aid teaches individuals how to handle a medical emergency related to alcohol abuse, such as in the case of overdose or withdrawal. These measures can provide people with short-term support and information until longer-term, professional interventions can be put into place.
Symptoms of an Alcohol Use Disorder
Mental health first aid for alcohol abuse educates people on how to become aware of potential signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse. It is important that people be mindful about their drinking habits in addition to being watchful of the drinking habits of loved ones to ensure that alcohol use does not develop into an alcohol use disorder.
Some frequent symptoms of an alcohol use disorder include:
- Difficulty controlling alcohol intake despite attempts to stop
- Intense cravings for alcohol
- Extensive amounts of time spent obtaining alcohol, drinking alcohol or recovering from its effects
- Impaired occupational and academic functioning
- Neglected household, parenting or social responsibilities
- Continued alcohol use despite risky or dangerous situations, such as driving
- Alcohol withdrawal symptoms when refraining from use
Causes and Risk Factors of an Alcohol Use Disorder
There are no specific factors that have been identified as the sole cause of alcohol use disorders. Instead, risk factors are used to determine if a person has an increased likelihood that a person may develop an alcohol use disorder. Several risk factors associated with an elevated chance of developing an alcohol use disorder include:
- Having a family history of substance use disorder
- Having a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with alcohol use disorder
- Co-occurring mental health conditions
- Experiencing stress, trauma or abuse in the past
- Having poor parental supervision or family support as a child
- Using alcohol at an early age
- Experiencing peer pressure
How to Provide Mental Health First Aid for Alcohol Use Disorder
If one is evaluated to have an alcohol use disorder, mental health first aid advises that a five-step ALGEE action plan be used. ALGEE is a mnemonic for:
- Assess for risk of suicide or harm
- Listen non-judgmentally
- Give reassurance and information
- Encourage appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help and other support strategies
By following these five steps, a person providing mental health first aid for alcohol abuse can assess potential medical emergencies, engage in harm-reduction techniques and provide information for long-term intervention and support.
Assess for Risk of Suicide or Harm
Before offering assistance to a person with an alcohol use disorder, it is vital to assess whether or not they are in a state of crisis. A person may be deemed to be in a crisis situation if they are showing signs of alcohol poisoning, withdrawal symptoms, aggressive behaviors, self-harming behaviors or suicidal thoughts.
In the case of overdose, 911 should be contacted immediately for medical assistance. By familiarizing yourself with the signs of alcohol poisoning, you could prevent a person from incurring serious harm, impairment or death.
The most common signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Weak coordination and extreme confusion
- Vomiting during sleep
- Seizures or fixed spasms
- Slow or lack of regulated breathing
- Moist, pale or skin that appears blue in color
Alcohol poisoning can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.
Alcohol withdrawal and alcohol detox can be extremely dangerous or even deadly in some circumstances. If a person seems to be going through alcohol withdrawal, call 911 immediately.
The signs of alcohol withdrawal are:
- Anxiety or restlessness
- Confusion, mood swings and irritability
- Shaking or trembling
- Heart palpitations
- Nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite
- Trouble sleeping
- Hallucinations or delusions
If a person is showing aggressive behaviors, threatening to engage in self-harm behaviors or verbalizing suicidal thoughts, call 911 as soon as possible. Ask the person questions about their self-harming behaviors and suicidal thoughts to assess if they plan to follow through on any of these thoughts or behaviors. If the person does have show signs of suicidal ideation or the desire to self-harm, arrange for you or someone else to stay with them to ensure the person’s safety until professional help arrives.
If it is determined that the situation is not at a crisis level, move on to the next steps.
If the situation is not deemed to be a crisis, begin providing mental health first aid. Move toward the person and inquire if they would like your help. Attend to them through active listening, use calm and laid back tones and show kindness and understanding.
Some helpful hints for active listening include:
- Maintain clear eye contact
- Keep body language open and relaxed
- Ask questions and reflect to show understanding
- Be secure with crying, quiet or uncomfortable moments in conversation
- Demonstrate patience and tolerance
Ask the person for more details about their drinking habits and inquire if they feel in control of their behaviors. Foster a non-judgmental atmosphere, provide your full attention and encourage the person to speak openly and honestly. Listen in a non-judgmental manner to bolster their confidence so that they speak truthfully and overtly about their alcohol abuse. Validate their struggles, while showing sympathy and compassion.
Give Reassurance and Information
It is crucial to interact with the person in a caring and concerned manner, as opposed to coming off as confrontational or threatening. Treat the person with respect and value and maintain realistic expectations of them. Mental health first aid techniques are often the first step in motivating the person toward recovery. Assess whether the person is willing to receive information about alcohol abuse or other types of support groups and professional treatment options.
The Recovery Village offers a collection of resources and educational blogs to assist people in coping with alcohol abuse, including:
- Understanding the Difference Between Alcohol Use and Alcoholism
- The Young-American Revolt Against Alcohol Use
- Stopping Alcohol Use Disorder Before It Starts
- Binge Drinking in Young Men
Encourage Appropriate Professional Help
If the person is willing to consider professional treatment, provide them with information and materials about local treatment choices and encourage them to call for an appointment. You can refer the person to general medicine physicians, licensed mental health practitioners, drug and alcohol professionals and support groups.
What If the Person Doesn’t Want Help?
If the person is hesitant or not quite ready to seek professional treatment, try to address their fear and concerns. At the very least, encourage them to have an initial conversation with their primary care physician about the prospect and necessity of treatment.
Despite your attempts and best intentions, it is key to remember that nobody can be pressured or intimidated into treatment. If they are resistant or uncertain, confirm your continued support and assure them that you will be available at a later date to help them if they change their mind.
Encourage Self-Help and Other Support Strategies
Persuade the person to seek the support of family and friends who will embrace their recovery efforts. Encourage them to spend more time with people, groups or individuals in the community who do not drink. Advise them to consider joining support groups that are specific to their alcohol use disorder, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
You can also persuade the person to engage in self-care to promote healthy coping skills, such as exercise, healthy nutrition, meditation and gratitude practices.
To learn more techniques to support people with mental health conditions and alcohol use disorders, consider signing up for a Mental Health First Aid course, which will teach you how to identify, understand and respond to symptoms of mental health and substance use disorders.
Helpful Hotlines for Mental Health First Aiders
While mental health first aid can be enormously helpful, it’s crucial to provide anyone you’re assisting with additional resources. The following helplines have trained mental health practitioners standing by to assist people in finding substance abuse treatment resources in their regions.
- National Suicide Helpline: 1-800-273-8255
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357
- American Psychiatric Association Answer Center: 1-888-357-7924
- American Psychological Association Public Education Line: 1-800-964-2000
- The National Mental Health Association: 800-969-6642
- The National Poison Control Center: 800-222-1222
- Alcohol and Drug Abuse Helpline: 1-800-821-4357
- National Institute on Drug Abuse Hotline: 1-800-729-6686
If you provide mental health first aid to someone living with alcohol abuse, it’s important to encourage them to undergo high-quality, comprehensive care for their addiction. We can help. The Recovery Village provides a full range of care for addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions. Call a representative today to get started.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.