You’re out with your friends and everyone is enjoying themselves—swaying to the music and chatting, and perhaps some people are drinking. You notice one of them has had a little too much (e.g., stumbling, slurring, talking loudly), and something tells you to pay attention to it. You know them like the back of your hand; after all, these are your friends, and you watch out for each other. So when your instincts tell you that your friend’s capabilities are down, what do you do? And what can you do to help everyone end up OK at the end of the night?
Before we go any further, let’s pause for a moment—you might assume that high school students find themselves (and their friends) drinking a little too much a little too often. But you’d be wrong; it’s not happening as often as you’d think. Here’s how much other students are actually drinking.
According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, 85 percent of high school students think their peers drink alcohol regularly. In reality, 69 percent of students say they don’t drink at all, for real—not a drop. Only 31 percent of students say they drink once a week or more, according to the survey. (That’s similar to nationwide statistics—where about 33 percent of students say they drank in the past month.)
“Most people drink responsibly, or not at all, but don’t boast about that, so they may think they’re the only ones,” says Dr. Ann Quinn-Zobeck, former senior director of initiatives and training, the BACCHUS Network, a national association of peer education initiatives addressing alcohol use.
Even though drinking isn’t as common as you might think, you may someday find yourself around someone who’s been drinking and needs help. Most of the best ways to help are pretty straightforward—you’re probably doing them already. Still, it’s always good to have a plan. Things can get a little unclear when it comes to determining how much help a person needs (when in doubt, you can always call a trusted adult or 911).
The legal drinking age in the US is 21, which most likely means that you and your friend are both underage—but don’t let that stop you from helping.
“Many states have Good Samaritan policies in place,” says Dr. Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington, DC. “These allow friends to call for help without risk of getting in trouble.” Of course, if someone is exhibiting the symptoms [of alcohol poisoning], you absolutely need to make the call either way.
Use this guide to figure out how best to help.
Step 1: Stay by their side
When people aren’t paying attention to their pacing, drinks can sneak up on them, especially in a party environment. You’re probably already checking in with your friends throughout the night; it’s what you do when you want to have a good time without anything negative going down. As soon as you notice that your friend is looking like they’ve had too much to drink, it’s time to step up your check-ins. Keep an eye on them and stay close. This is important—even once they stop drinking, their blood alcohol content (BAC) is still going up for an hour or so. And that could mean trouble for your friend.
“Because alcohol impairs both mental and physical abilities, the intoxicated person could be taken advantage of, and is at greater risk of injury to themselves or others from falls, accidents, or trying to drive. A friend can intervene and guide their intoxicated friend to safety. You may need to enlist the help of others to convince the intoxicated person to choose the safest option.”
91 percent of students say they’d stay with an intoxicated friend to make sure they were OK*
Step 2: Steer your friend away from the alcohol
If they’ve already overindulged, drinking more is only going to make things worse (and the alcohol will keep hitting them later on, even after they’ve stopped). The best thing to do here is to keep them from the beverages and the people who might be encouraging them to drink more. You might have to get a little creative in the process. “Intoxicated people are focused on in-the-moment stimuli, which makes them prone to distraction,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, who oversees the Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiative at Yale University in Connecticut. “So redirecting a drunk friend is often astonishingly easy, especially if you know what they like.”
Try some of these strategies:
- What’s that you hear? It’s Beyoncé, and it must be responded to with aggressive and intentional dance moves. You need both arms for this. Leave the drinks behind. “I know students who will ask the DJ to play their friend’s favorite song. After some time on the dance floor, water and a snack can seem really appealing!” says Dr. Boyd.
- Tell them there’s an issue happening with that person you’re seeing and you need some advice about how to deal. Head to another room or outside to talk more. “Asking the drunk person to help you can work really well—it’s a nice way to call their more mindful qualities to the forefront,” says Dr. Boyd.
- You know what sounds amazing? Pizza. Or cheese fries. Go and get it now.
- Is your friend still clutching a drink? “Accidentally” spill it—on yourself, on the floor, on another gracious friend who’s part of the plan, anything to keep them from sipping more.
- Tell them you’ve had too much and suggest you both get some water. Follow through.
- If they’re not having any of it and insisting on another overflowing cocktail, say you’ll make it—just forget to put in the alcohol.*
*But be careful with this because it can be tricky. After all, you don’t want your friend to think they drank more than they did. Confess to your friend in the morning that the drinks were alcohol-free and use that as a starting point for a check-in.
Hold off on the lectures or serious convos: If you’re not loving how this situation is playing out or how your friend is behaving, and you want to talk to them about it, wait until they’re sober.
It’s hard to reason with a drunk person since they’re so caught up in the moment. They may get upset or misunderstand you, and then might lash out, overreact, or do something risky such as walk off alone. Your main goal here is to make sure they’re OK, not analyze what they’re doing or how they got there—at least, not right now. Save it until they’re sober and then approach it with kindness. “A couple of days after the event, I would talk to them about it, why it happened, and how they can avoid it in the future,” says Donna Cornett, alcohol abuse counselor and author of Beat Binge Drinking.
“[My friend] was throwing up a lot, so I called their parents and calmly explained the situation. His parents came to pick him up. He got in trouble (which I expected), but I know I made the right decision. He wasn’t mad at me later—more mad at himself for making the decision.”
—Paul**, senior, Setauket, New York
Step 3: Head out for a safer spot—together
Even if you’re not sure your friend is in trouble, it’s probably best to help them get somewhere safe. That way, they’re less likely to keep drinking and less likely to feel bad in the morning. First and foremost, always make sure someone who’s been drinking doesn’t drive. Take away their keys if you need to, or conveniently “lose” them. If driving isn’t an option, walk with them back to their place or join them in the taxi, ride share, bus, train, flying unicorn, or whatever safe/sober ride is available to you. Their home is probably preferable, but if for some reason they can’t go there, consider taking them to your house or somewhere else safe and drink-free. Do what you can to bring other helpful friends along too—ideally, this is less of a “rescue” and more of a way to reset the night while still having fun.
“I asked for someone to accompany me when taking them home. I also made sure that they would be in the company of someone and not be alone throughout the night.”
—Maria, San Bernardino, California
88 percent of students say they’d make sure the person got home safely (e.g., a sober driver, ride share, someone to walk with them)*
Step 4: Keep them awake, if you can, and stick around
Try to keep them awake for a while, since it’s easier to gauge how well they’re doing when they’re awake instead of asleep. Get some water and encourage them to sip on it, not chug it. Throw on their (or your) favorite movie and ask them questions to keep them engaged. Stomach feeling just fine? Have a little snack. Stomach not really playing along? Don’t force them to throw up. Let them do so naturally, according to Stanford’s Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.
If they do throw up:
- Try to keep them sitting up.
- If they can’t sit up, it’s probably time to call for help. In the meantime, lay them on their side to prevent choking.
- If your friend can’t stop vomiting, call 911.
And make sure you stick around, especially if they’re vomiting. “Stay with them to make sure they don’t pass out. If they are vomiting, make sure they stay awake and do not choke. If they are in a really bad condition, [they may need to] be transported to the ER.”
—Sara, St. Louis, Missouri
“We called the friend’s mom, who was a doctor. We laid him on his side and gave him water after [he threw] up multiple times.”
—Cade, senior, Elgin, Illinois
Sometimes, your best efforts at keeping someone awake will fail, even if they involve your favorite Judd Apatow movie. If they do fall asleep:
- Lay them on their side to prevent choking on vomit.
- Check that they are breathing normally. What’s normally? They should be breathing more than 8 times per minute and the gaps between their breaths should be shorter than 10 seconds. If you’re not sure, call 911.
- Stay and keep an eye on them through the night. If you can’t swing it, call a parent, sibling, sober friend, or another reliable person who can, and wait with them until the person arrives.
“My friend got super drunk once and started throwing up in the car ride home. Our other friend carried her up the stairs and I sat with her in the bathroom for several hours. I brought her food and water, and my mom set up a mattress for her to sleep on.”
—Isabelle, senior, Marin County, California
Use this step at any point
You might get into a situation where things are escalating or you’re not sure if someone needs more help than you can provide. That’s OK—that’s where your resources come in.
Call someone for help. Reach out to a trusted adult, sibling, or sober friend. If you are ever in doubt, call 911 right away.
“It’s always a good rule of thumb to have three adults you trust and can rely upon in hard times at your fingertips,” says Raychelle Lohmann, professional counselor and author of numerous psychological wellness books for teens “Have their numbers saved in your phone in case you need them.”
“I called my mother for advice, and anything she couldn’t answer I looked up online. [My friend’s] state wasn’t improving, so I called 911 and found out she had alcohol poisoning.”
—Sydney, sophomore, Valrico, Florida
72 percent of students say they’d call a parent, guardian, or older sibling if a friend drank too much and needed help*
When to call 911
If the person has one or more of the signs below, or if you’re ever unsure, seek medical attention right away. Even if you’re worried that your friend might be angry with you in the morning, it’s better to reach out for help than wait. “In any situation in which you are very concerned about another person’s well-being, it is worth considering getting help. Remember, too, that embarrassment and frustration with themselves may manifest as anger at others. A friendship can be healed; not getting help in time can be catastrophic,” says Dr. Davis Smith, physician and director of health services at Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut.
If you notice any signs of alcohol poisoning, call 911 for help immediately. Here’s what that could look like, according to the Mayo Clinic and Drinkaware, an alcohol education program in the UK:
- Unconscious (passed out) and unable to wake
- Pale, ashen, or blue-tinted skin (if it’s hard to tell, look for a blue tint under the fingernails and on the inside of the bottom lip)
- Irregular breathing or very slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute or gaps of 10 seconds or longer between breaths)
- Having a seizure
- Being extremely confused or in a stupor (e.g., the person is conscious but unresponsive)
“If your friend is losing consciousness, breathing irregularly, or experiencing seizures, call 911 immediately,” says Lohmann.
76 percent of students say they’d call 911 if they encountered someone who drank too much and needed help*
Consider making a plan the next time you and your friends go out. Talk through how much, or if you’re planning on drinking, come up with a quick protocol if things go awry, and determine in advance how you’ll get home safely with a sober ride. “Many people have developed the habit of planning with their friends before partying. They discuss if/how much they plan to drink and what they hope to get out of the night. This puts them in a better position to be helpful to one another,” says Dr. Smith.
Strategies in this article are based on content by the UK’s Drinkaware education program and “Looking Out for Your Friends” by Stanford University’s Office of Alcohol Policy and Education
*Source: Student Health 101 survey, June 2016
Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS, LPC, professional counselor and author of numerous psychological wellness books for teens, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
Ann Quinn-Zobeck, PhD, former senior director of initiatives and training, The BACCHUS Network.
Davis Smith, MD, physician and director of health services, Westminster School, Simsbury, Connecticut.
Aaron White, PhD, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington, DC.
Berrington, L. (2016, November 1). Drinking? 7 ways to get what you want from it. Student Health 101. Retrieved from https://default.readsh101.com/drinking-7-ways-get-want/
Drinkaware. (2016, March 21). Alcohol poisoning—Symptoms, causes, and effects. Retrieved from https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/effects-on-the-body/alcohol-poisoning/
Kann, L., McManus, T., Harris, W. A., Shanklin, S. L., et al. (2016, June 10). Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2015. MMWR. Surveillance Summaries, 65. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/ss/ss6506a1.htm
Mayo Clinic. (2016, July 21). Alcohol poisoning. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/dxc-20211603
Stanford University Office of Alcohol Policy and Education (n.d.). Looking out for your friends. Retrieved from https://alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/staying-safe/looking-out-your-friends
Student Health 101 survey, June 2017.