What Helps People Stay in Treatment?

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Getting treated for an addiction is hard work. It inevitably involves a slew of difficult challenges - logistical, financial and personal. Patients may find it hard to get time off from their jobs. They may have trouble getting transportation. They are likely to be called upon to explore personal or family issues that are painful. In addition to the logistical, social, and interpersonal issues, withdrawing from drugs is physically and emotionally challenging. The process necessarily forces the individual addict to deal with a myriad of uncomfortable, and often painful, experiences such that they may come to believe that he or she can not make it - or that it's even desirable to get off drugs.

Replacement therapies have proven very helpful in many people's efforts to stick with their recovery effort. Addiction specialists have learned a great deal about how these medications can make the difference in recovery; scientists are enthusiastically testing new replacement therapies for other types of drugs. That said, many people have entered into and sustained recovery from drug addiction without the use of prescribed medications - thus, medications are tools that can be utilized when available and appropriate, but they alone can not sustain recovery and recovery can be sustained without them.

Another vital element of continued treatment: dedicated work by family members and friends to support the person in treatment. This is never easy.

"It takes almost a saint in a way to sort of maintain a loving supportive engagement with somebody who may be doing things that really hurt you," acknowledges Dr. Mark Willenbring of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "I mean, they may be spending a lot of money. They may be acting irresponsibly. They may be saying hurtful things."

Nonetheless, emotional support - not only from family members and friends, but also from counselors, physicians and other healthcare practitioners - is essential for an addicted person.

The first step: ensuring that the treatment is the right fit for the recovering person's personality and needs. Does the treatment plan respond to the patient's particular addiction? Do the program and plan address any co-occurring disorders? Are the counselors supportive and sympathetic? Is the program sensitive to the recovering person's age, gender, or racial or ethnic identity? Do the physicians prescribe some of the new prescription medications that can help get recovery off to a strong start, and can help a person stick with their treatment plan?

These are some of the most important factors affecting a person's willingness to stick with therapy:

  • family involvement - which may include participation in family therapy - is one of the strongest factors affecting people's ability to hang in with their treatment
  • the counselors - the person must be able to forge a personal connection of some kind with at least one counselor or caregiver and maintain a positive relationship with the recovering person
  • the type of treatment - there are many approaches to treatment, from replacement therapy, which involves the use of prescribed drugs, to cognitive behavioral therapy. If a treatment program doesn't feel right, the patient shouldn't give up - instead try again until connecting with a program that's the right fit
  • personal motivation of the recovering person
  • pressure from an outside force, such as the criminal justice system or an employer