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Drug and alcohol rehab – does it work?

Drug and alcohol rehab – does it work?

Drug and alcohol rehab centres are designed to help people with a dependency problem by isolating them from the sources of their addiction. They are then given medical, psychological and sociological treatment to help them overcome their dependency.

This article on drug and alcohol rehabilitation is written by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

What is drug and alcohol rehab?  

In practice, rehab usually involves a residential course, in which the person being treated stays in the drug and alcohol rehab unit for around four weeks but this can extend to a year or more. Even if drug and alcohol rehab has been ordered as an alternative to prison, attendance at rehab centres is generally voluntary and there are no locks on the doors. This is important, as drug and alcohol rehab is generally successful only if the person affected wants to overcome their problem.

The quality of facilities at drug and alcohol rehab centres varies widely. But whether you go to one of the exclusive rehab centres of the stars, like The Priory, or to local community facilities, the process of rehab is essentially the same.

Detox before drug and alcohol rehab

Although the physical dependence on a substance is only part of the problem, most drug and alcohol rehab treatment will not start until the patient has been through a detox programme. This usually involves the support of medication, such as methadone for heroine, administered under strictly controlled conditions. Some drug and alcohol rehab centres have their own detox facilities, while others will ask patients to have completed this elsewhere before they arrive.

The stages of drug and alcohol rehab 

Once a patient has overcome the physical craving for the substance they are dependent on, the real process of drug and alcohol rehab can begin. This involves helping the patient to identify the reasons behind their addiction, showing them ways to modify their thinking patterns. Intensive support then helps them through early abstinence, on to sustained abstinence and finally through to recovery.

Addiction effects people physically, emotionally, psychologically and socially, and so drug and alcohol rehab needs to address the problem from all these perspectives. Treatments include counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, group therapy and family therapy sessions. Often, the key to success is encouraging the patient to stay in drug and alcohol rehab for long enough to experience the maximum benefit from the combined treatment program.

Increasing the success of drug and alcohol rehab

Drug and alcohol rehab does work, but it is not an exact science. What works for some people, will not be as successful for others. For this reason, it is important to choose the right drug and alcohol rehab centre for you. As discussed, you will need to stay there for at least four weeks, usually much longer, so it is important that you feel comfortable there and that you have trust in the staff. There are a great number of treatment centres available, so it is worth taking the time to assess the best option.

Family support can also increase the success rate of drug and alcohol rehab. Most centres will have family counselling sessions, where family members can discuss how the problem has affected them and learn how they can help in the long term. This can help the patient to see that their problem is also causing hardship for the people they love and can provide inspiration to stick to the programme. It can also help family members to understand that addiction is a disease and not a character flaw.

The quality of aftercare also has a major impact on the success of drug and alcohol rehab. Aftercare may include outpatient attendance or even a ‘halfway-house’ to help the patient to reintegrate into society. Drug and alcohol rehab will never be able to ‘cure’ someone of their addiction, so long term aftercare will always be needed to help them stay sober and clean.

What counts as success for drug and alcohol rehab? 

There are four levels of success for drug and alcohol rehab:

  • Initial treatment – including detox and admission to a drug and alcohol rehab centre. With denial often a strong factor, this can be the hardest stage for friends and relatives to achieve.

  • Early abstinence – this is often the hardest stage for the patient, as they face up to the physical and psychological aspects of their addiction. Achieving 90 days of abstinence is considered a success for this stage.

  • Maintaining abstinence – from around 90 days to 5 years, the key to success is applying all the tools learned in drug and alcohol rehab in order to remain clean and sober and reintegrate into a normal life.

  • Advanced recovery – once a patient has achieved five years of abstinence, their regular counselling will usually cease and they will be considered to have recovered.


So does drug and alcohol rehab work? 

The answer really depends on your definition of success. Drug and alcohol rehab will usually work in most cases for the first two stages described above – initial treatment and early abstinence. However, maintaining abstinence for up to five years without relapse is much harder to achieve. Advanced recovery, where the patient becomes a fully integrated member of society, engaging once again as a successful spouse, parent and citizen, is rarer still.

In all cases, even those who achieve full recovery, the addictive tendency will always be there, and the potential for relapse will remain. Drug and alcohol rehab does work in helping patients to cope with their addiction, but it is not a cure.

Kathryn Senior

Profile of the author

Dr Kathryn Senior is an acclaimed medical journalist who has written over 500 feature articles for leading international journals within The Lancet group. As Senior Writer at Freelance Copy she produces high quality scientific and medical content for websites and printed publications for companies and organisations in the health, medical and pharmaceutical sectors.

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