Components of Effective Addiction Treatment Programs

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If you’ve made the brave decision to get help for a substance use or alcohol use disorder, you might be wondering how to select the right treatment program. How can you tell if an addiction treatment program or facility is effective? What are the components and ingredients of programs that get the best results?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), your first step should be to talk with your primary care physician, who can assess the severity of your substance or alcohol use disorder, recommend a treatment plan, determine if medication is necessary, and check your overall health.

If your doctor does recommend a treatment program, you'll want to evaluate programs carefully to make sure they offer effective treatments and are a good fit for your needs. NIAAA suggests asking the following questions:

  • What kind of treatment does the program or provider offer? 
  • Is treatment tailored to the individual?
  • What is expected of the patient?
  • Is treatment success measured?
  • How does the program handle relapse?

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Substance Use Disorder Treatment: What to Look For

While there's no one-size-fits-all or exact formula for effective substance use disorder treatment, there are five key signs of quality treatment, according to SAMHSA.

Accreditation and Staff

It’s important to make sure the facility and staff members are licensed or certified by the state in the treatment of substance use and mental disorders, according to SAMHSA. Similarly, a reputable facility should have satisfaction surveys rated by others who have used their services.

Many experts say a high staff-to-patient ratio is also important, as more staff often translates into more supportive, individualized care.

Medication

Medical treatments cannot "cure" drinking problems, but they can be combined with other interventions and therapies to produce effective treatment. The medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating alcohol dependence and substance use disorders include:

Evidence-Based Practices

In addition to medication management therapies, an effective substance use or alcohol disorder program should offer a variety of proven addiction treatments including:

Family Involvement

SAMHSA recommends finding a treatment facility that incorporates family therapy techniques into their treatment protocol. Family therapy aims to help families become aware of their own needs and prevents substance misuse from moving from one generation to another.

Supports

Addiction recovery is an ongoing process, so it's important for your treatment program to offer supports at every step of the journey, including:

  • Ongoing counseling
  • Recovery coaching and support
  • Sober housing
  • Employment supports
  • Continued family involvement

More Key Treatment Ingredients

In a report entitled "A Sound Investment: Identifying and Treating Alcohol Problems," researchers from George Washington University Medical Center consulted with professionals in the treatment and rehabilitation industry to identify active ingredients of effective alcohol treatment, including:

  • Contracting with patients: Also called contingency management or behavior contracting, this approach uses a formal written contract between a client and a therapist (or parent or teacher) that outlines behavior-change goals, reinforcements, rewards, and penalties. Contingency contracts can be very effective in producing behavior changes, since the rules are spelled out clearly, preventing both parties from backing down on their promises.
  • Early detection: Screenings and brief interventions (for non-dependent problem drinkers) aim to get the person to reduce their level of drinking or change their harmful pattern of drinking.
  • Longer-duration stays: While there's no magic number, numerous studies have found that treatment stays for at least 90 days lead to better outcomes and less risk of relapse.
  • Social skills training: A type of behavioral therapy, social skills training can help people with alcohol use disorders recognize stressful situations in which their drinking has been a problem in the past, and teach them skills to cope better with those situations.
  • Specialized services: Medical, psychiatric, employment, or family problems can make recovery more challenging. Treatment programs should target specialized services at the individual needs of the patient through "problem-to-service matching."
  • Support groups: Participating in support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery can be an active ingredient of treatment, both during a professional intervention and after, to help you stay on track as your life begins to return to normal.

A Word From Verywell

Entering treatment for an alcohol or substance use disorder is a big step, and one that requires research and investigation to ensure that you're making a treatment choice with confidence. If you're not sure where to start, don't just put off getting the help you need. Reach out to a trusted physician and/or loved one for help as you begin the journey toward a better, sober life.

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Article Sources
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  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Finding quality treatment for substance use disorders.

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  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Principles of drug addiction treatment. Updated December 2012.