Methamphetamine, or meth, is one of the most potent, addictive stimulant drugs in the world.
Abuse of this drug is on the rise again in the United States after a decade-long lull starting in the early 2000s. After law enforcement cracked down on domestic production, clandestine labs in other parts of the world began manufacturing meth, and they are now importing it into North America.
At the border between the U.S. and Mexico, for example, border patrol agents report seizing between 10 and 20 times as much meth — now purer and less expensive than ever — compared to seizures 10 years ago.
This means that people living in the U.S. are more likely to know someone who struggles with meth addiction or abuse. How do you know if someone you care about suffers from addiction to this stimulant drug? What can you do to help them? What kinds of help are available to people who struggle with meth abuse?
Before you sweep in to offer help and support to a friend or family member you think may be abusing drugs like meth, know the signs and the risks. Meth can cause intense personality changes that are difficult to understand or manage alone. Learn the best approach to offering care and support, and where your friend can get treatment.
The stimulant drug methamphetamine was developed from amphetamine in the early 20th century, as a nasal decongestant and bronchial inhaler. Later, it was prescribed to promote weight loss in obese individuals and to keep soldiers awake and alert in wartime. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, people increasingly injected or otherwise abused meth-based drugs.
Currently, methamphetamine is a Schedule II substance, with very rare prescription applications. It is predominantly an addictive drug of abuse, produced in super labs and sent illegally into the country.
Meth’s impact on dopamine and norepinephrine release in the brain lasts longer than cocaine, and it is less expensive than even crack cocaine or diverted prescription stimulants. Because the drug binds rapidly to receptors in the brain, the high sets in fast and feels intense. Then, the crash can be hard as well, leading to depleted dopamine and serotonin that causes feelings of exhaustion, sadness, or inability feeling pleasure in anything (anhedonia).
Abusing meth for even a few weeks can lead to brain damage. As the brain is repeatedly depleted of mood-elevating neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, feeling good or even normal without the presence of meth in the body becomes more difficult. Compulsive meth consumption occurs quickly, and people may take so much of the drug over a day that they begin tweaking. This is a period of several days during which the person does not eat much, does not sleep at all, and may hallucinate and act violently as they mentally separate from reality. Long meth binges and lack of sleeping can trigger psychosis.
Someone who has abused meth consistently for some time may act paranoid, abusive, or violent. They may commit self-harm or harm you if you confront them. They will be impulsive and easily distracted. They may develop heart palpitations or end up in the hospital.
Even if meth releases dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine to create feelings of pleasure in the brain, struggling with addiction is a psychologically painful experience. If someone you love struggles with addiction, you likely see that they are suffering, and you want to help.
It is essential, both for your safety and your friend’s emotional safety, not to confront them about their drug abuse while they are high on meth. Take some time to learn how to talk to the person about drug abuse. Planning can result in a much better conversation.
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It is not easy to be a spouse, child, parent, or friend of someone who struggles with drug or alcohol abuse.
If you have been in a relationship of any kind with someone struggling with addiction, you have likely suffered some emotional or psychological toll on your end. This is normal. If the person struggles with addiction, their emotions swing wildly, they may make promises they do not keep, and they may disappear for hours or days at a time.
Unfortunately, those with loved ones in the throes of addiction are too often told that staying in the relationship at all, for any reason, is enabling. This is not true. You can stay in the relationship and encourage your loved one to get help, but you need to take care of yourself first. This means you likely need to find a therapist, counselor, doctor, interventionist, or addiction expert who can help you learn to be firm in what you need, set clear boundaries, and say “no” to problematic behaviors.
Working with a therapist or counselor will help you manage your mental health, which has likely suffered while you worried about what to do.
Staying in the relationship is not the same thing as enabling; however, you may have developed enabling behaviors to protect yourself and your friend. It is important to recognize the difference between supporting someone you love and enabling their negative or compulsive behaviors.
Psychologists recommend asking yourself these questions to understand if you are enabling someone or supporting them to get better:
Answering “yes” to one or more of the above questions may indicate that you are enabling someone who struggles with an addiction to meth or another dangerous substance. Enabling behaviors can be changed, with help from addiction specialists, counselors, or therapists who can walk you through healthier approaches to supporting yourself and your friend.
If you think or know that your loved one abuses a drug like meth, what can you do to help, now that you have helped yourself? Should you involuntarily commit them to detox and rehabilitation? Should you hold an intervention? Should you wait until they hit rock bottom as a way of setting personal boundaries?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports as one of its Principles of Effective Treatment that treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective.
One of the ways that addiction specialists, doctors, and therapists help clients accept that they need treatment is through brief interventions. These are short sessions, usually between a medical professional and the individual struggling with addiction, in which specialists discuss the person’s symptoms, risks, and ways that detox and rehabilitation can help. The goal of a brief intervention is to motivate someone who is otherwise ambivalent to accept addiction treatment.
Compulsory treatment, or involuntary commitment, is not the same as a brief intervention. A study surveying the results of compulsory treatment reports that there is no overall association with improved outcomes when someone is involuntarily enrolled in detox and rehabilitation. In fact, there is the potential for human rights abuses in centers that accept involuntary treatment submissions.
NIDA also states that it is important for treatment to be widely available to those who want it or think they need it. It is important for you to encourage the person to get help and even help them find resources for treatment.
Effective treatments for people who struggle with meth abuse rely predominantly on cognitive behavioral therapy, including the Matrix Model and rewards-based positive reinforcement. Look for programs that offer these forms of therapy.
When you talk to your friend while they are sober, remind them that you love them and want them to be healthy and happy. After expressing concern for their condition, without guilting them or blaming them, you can then offer some treatment options you have researched.
This process is an intervention, although not a professionally led one. You may consider hiring a professional interventionist to lead this discussion, as they can help to keep the conversation on track. Using an interventionist may result in a higher likelihood of your loved one accepting help.
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(July 8, 2018). What is the Difference Between Supporting and Enabling? Psych Central. Retrieved January 2019 from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-is-the-difference-between-supporting-and-enabling/
(January 2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved January 2019 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment
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(February 1, 2017). The Effectiveness of Compulsory Drug Treatment: A Systematic Review. HHS Public Access. Retrieved January 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4752879/
(September 2013). What Treatments are Effective for People Who Abuse Methamphetamine? National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved January 2019 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-treatments-are-effective-methamphetamine-abusers