The evolving art and science of treating substance use disorders


Healthcare continues to make significant advances each year, and thankfully, treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) and alcohol addiction is keeping pace. Thankfully, there’s been a shift away from the oversimplified goal of abstinence alone to a more holistic perspective. Today, recommended treatment for substance use disorders and alcoholism validates the need to not only overcome the physiological addiction but to also put in place supportive measures designed to create a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle for the individual in recovery.

Ten positive trends we’ve been observing include:

  1. The path to rehabilitation is now known to be a long-term journey, not a single point in time. Few, if any, recovering addicts go to rehab, come out, resume their lives, and are considered “cured.” Mental health professionals understand that addiction is a lifelong health condition that requires proactive actions, changes in belief and attitudes, and often restructured lifestyles to treat. Fortunately, that mindset is starting to spread through the rest of our society.
  2. Relapses do not necessitate a “go back to square one” approach. Treatment programs accept that relapses happen but no longer look at them as a reset button that would minimize the hard work the recovering addict has been doing; there’s more of a “that happened, what can we do to prevent it from happening again?” thought process.
  3. Rehabilitation for substance use disorders is often most successful if it involves a long-term (30 day or more) stay in a residential facility. Previously, an individual’s addiction was considered to be overcome as soon as the physical withdrawal had ended. Outdated treatment protocols were to get the individual through the withdrawal stage and then send them to outpatient support such as 12-step meetings. Today, research indicates that intensive residential recovery delivers better outcomes.
  4. Recovery involves far more than abstinence. Overcoming addiction and SUDs requires a big picture approach, one that acknowledges that drugs and alcohol are only part of the equation. The recovering addict needs support and counseling that will help them identify and adopt healthier coping mechanisms, surround themselves with positive, supportive friends and family, and potentially find new employment and/or a safer place to call home.
  5. It takes a village. Not long ago, the typical approach to treating someone struggling with SUDs or alcohol abuse was to send them to rehabilitation to “fix themselves.” However, recent research shows a much higher success rate for those who have strong support systems made up of family and friends, therapists, and other healthcare professionals who help them talk openly about the challenges they face and how they can overcome them to stay sober.
  6. Dual diagnosis should be addressed during recovery, not after. Many individuals who struggle with alcohol abuse or SUDs also have other mental health conditions, such as depression/anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, or ADHD. And it’s not uncommon for these conditions to have gone undiagnosed until the individual enters rehab. Not so long ago, rehabilitation would have been the primary goal, with treating the psychological condition as a secondary consideration. Today we understand that the two conditions are closely interrelated, so the best way to get healthy is to treat both at the same time.
  7. Medical advances are easing the process of recovery. New and improved medicines are being developed to help make withdrawal more bearable and abstinence easier to embrace.
  8. Treatment should continue beyond the residential stay. The process doesn’t end when the individual in recovery leaves the residential treatment home. Those who embrace a new, drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle should plan on continuing to learn about themselves and find support through ongoing therapy and by participating in 12-step programs where they can help and be helped by the common understanding of others.
  9. Recovery is not one-size-fits-all. Modern intensive treatment programs are available in a range of options: men- or women-only facilities, programs dedicated to working professionals, college students, those who love the mountains or ocean, singles, those with strong religious affiliations.
  10. Various payment options are available. Insurance companies are starting to pay for extended treatment programs, and more and more residential treatment administrators are willing to work with individuals and their families to identify payment programs that will make a residential program a workable option for those who need it.

Mental health care and the study of addiction is poised to continue to make significant advances in the years to come, potentially offering mobile apps, wearable technology, and a growing number of telehealth options that could make treatment even easier to obtain. That progress, when paired with the reduction of the stigma sometimes associated with mental illness and substance abuse, should ultimately lead to a greater understanding of and more empathy for those who struggle with alcohol or substance abuse.

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