When facing the overwhelming crisis of drug or alcohol addiction, whether as a family member or as an addict, one of the most common questions is if rehab really works. It feels like an extreme step, and many are unwilling to make that step unless they have some guarantee of results.
In the United States alone, over 40 million people over the age of 12 meet the criteria for alcohol, tobacco, and drug addiction. Addiction is the most dangerous disease we face as a nation, and effective treatment is necessary.
Rehab is often expensive, and insurance won’t always cover it. It’s lengthy, involved, and once it’s over, an addict must assimilate back into normal life, another lengthy and involved process.
So the question is: is it worth it?
The short answer? Yes, rehabilitation centers do work.
And depending on your situation, it may be the best option for you. But we don’t just want to leave you with the short answer. What makes us so sure that rehab can work? Here are the evidence, statistics, and success stories to back it up.
What Does Rehab Look Like?
First, we want to clarify what the different types of rehabilitation treatment are. Most people have a particular image in mind when they hear the word rehab when, in fact, there are many types and levels of drug and alcohol addiction treatment.
- Long-Term Treatment: Long-term treatment typically lasts 90-180 days (or longer), and is a highly structured program that assists those with chronic relapses.
- 12 Step-Based Treatment: The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (most commonly known as AA), is an effective ongoing recovery and support system that enables addicts to connect with sponsors and continue to live sober lives while also giving them a place to turn if they relapse. Other common 12 step programs include Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
These are the most common forms of rehab, although there are many subcategories, and many treatment centers will offer rehab programs that are tailored to a specific person’s needs.
One of the reasons there is such a misconception about the success rates of rehabilitation treatment is that the definition of success is misunderstood. For most, there is an equation of rehab success with being cured of addiction. This assumption prevents people from seeing success rates accurately.
A helpful way to think about drug addiction is to re-categorize it in your brain. Take it out of the “illness” category, and put it in the “disease” category. Diseases are not cured; they are managed. Just like a diabetic will manage his disease for the rest of his life after diagnosis, an addict will manage his addiction for the rest of his life after rehabilitation treatment.
Thus, success is not defined by abstinence, but by overall addiction management. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse:
“Like other chronic diseases, addiction can be managed successfully. Treatment enables people to counteract addiction’s powerful disruptive effects on the brain and behavior and to regain control of their lives. The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse is not only possible but also likely, with symptom recurrence rates similar to those for other well-characterized chronic medical illnesses—such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.”
Success, then, is not a total absence of relapse or struggle but an overall movement forward out of drug and alcohol abuse and into sober living. Success means lifelong treatment and management—it doesn’t mean that you’re cured.
This means that successful rehabilitation may include repeated treatment as well. One of the reasons rehab is viewed as a failure is that relapse occurs for some inevitably. However, as you can see, relapse isn’t a sign of failure. Instead, it’s a sign of the need for ongoing treatment.
The National Institute of Health gives the following criteria for “effective” treatment:
Based on scientific research since the mid-1970s, the following key principles should form the basis of any effective treatment program:
- Addiction is a complex but treatable disease that affects brain function and behavior.
- No single treatment is right for everyone.
- People need to have quick access to treatment.
- Effective treatment addresses all of the patient’s needs, not just his or her drug use.
- Staying in treatment long enough is critical.
- Counseling and other behavioral therapies are the most commonly used forms of treatment.
- Medications are often an important part of treatment, especially when combined with behavioral therapies.
- Treatment plans must be reviewed often and modified to fit the patient’s changing needs.
- Treatment should address other possible mental disorders.
- Medically assisted detoxification is only the first stage of treatment.
- Treatment doesn’t need to be voluntary to be effective.
- Drug use during treatment must be monitored continuously.
- Treatment programs should test patients for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases as well as teach them about steps they can take to reduce their risk of these illnesses.
What About the Cost?
One of the greatest concerns people have when considering rehabilitation treatment is how much it costs. This is understandable, as good treatment is not cheap. However, a good thing to consider is how that cost compares to the cost of ongoing drug and alcohol abuse.
The cost of a year of methadone treatment (the most common medical treatment prescribed for substance abuse transition) is around $4,700. Inpatient treatment can cost between $6,000 and $20,000 for a month. Residential treatment ranges from $10,000 to $60,000. Depending on how much insurance might cover, this cost can deeply impact a person’s financial situation.
However, what is the cost of ongoing addiction? Personally, addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs, isn’t free. The cost of the alcohol or drug itself can get into tens of thousands of dollars.
That’s without factoring how much work you miss as a result of your addiction and the cost of a DUI or incarceration. Beyond that, it costs many their relationships, homes, and very lives.
From a purely practical standpoint, addiction is costly for the economy. “Substance abuse costs our nation over $600 billion annually,” reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The personal and economic effects of drug abuse are astronomical and devastating, such that it is not only wise but also less expensive in the long run, to seek treatment.
What Do The Statistics Say?
One of the statistics that leads people to believe that rehabilitation is unsuccessful is that there is a 40-60% relapse rate among those who have undergone treatment, However, as we’ve already established, relapse is not a signifier of failure, but rather of a need for ongoing or adjusted treatment.
Another reason people are distrustful of many rehabilitation centers is their tendency to tout unrealistically high numbers, such as “90% success rate!” without really getting into what those numbers mean.
One of the reasons this can happen is that statistics are actually pretty easy to adjust in such a way that they will say what you want them to say. So you may be looking at a 90% rehab success rate that refers to pretty narrow parameters, ignoring factors such as dropout rates and later relapses.
With these mixed messages, it’s hard for many to know what to think about the success rate of rehab. When you look at the research, though, you will still find that the rehab success rate— though perhaps not as high as 90%—is high enough to warrant rehabilitation as a viable option for those seeking to manage addiction.
“Research shows that combining behavioral therapy with medications, where available, is the best way to ensure success for most patients,” says NIDA. The occasional celebrities might boast that they have “cured themselves,” but the facts just don’t support high success rates without some outside help.
According to Scientific American, with regard to alcohol addiction, “research suggests that AA is quite a bit better than receiving no help.” In fact, a 16-year study showed that “Of those who attended at least 27 weeks of AA meetings during the first year, 67 percent were abstinent at the 16-year follow-up, compared with 34 percent of those who did not participate in AA.”
NIDA also tells us that “According to research that tracks individuals in treatment over extended periods, most people who get into and remain in treatment stop using drugs, decrease their criminal activity, and improve their occupational, social, and psychological functioning.”
Yes, it’s true that there are high relapse rates and not every drug treatment center is equal, but the statistical research still points to drug and alcohol rehabilitation being a far better option for those battling drug addiction than simple willpower or good intentions.
Rehab Success Stories
Aside from all of the research-based evidence that rehabilitation is a reliable option for addiction recovery, there are plenty of success stories to inspire courage in others, validate the importance of rehab, and remind us all that addiction can be managed and controlled for the long haul.
Best Drug Rehabilitation, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Michigan, tells the story of Caitlin, a woman whose addictions began as a fourteen-year-old with benzodiazepines and marijuana and eventually evolved into meth addiction and stints in jail. Caitlin is an example of someone who went to rehab multiple times but kept after it even after multiple relapses. She eventually achieved ongoing success managing her addictions.
Laura battled her anxiety and OCD by turning to alcohol, eventually admitting that she needed help. Her recovery, through AA, led her to deal with not just her alcoholism but the factors that contributed to it as well.
Psychology Today tells the story of a couple whose marriage and family was saved by rehabilitation. Gloria tells of how her husband’s alcoholism was destroying their family. When she confronted him, he admitted to her and their children he had a problem. “He went willingly, and embraced treatment, a whole new outlet/experience for him, and a way to fill the evening hours without alcohol.”
Melissa Hartwig is the co-founder of Whole30, the wildly successful healthy eating and living approach that many have used to find success in their health management. But you may be surprised to know that prior to this, Hartwig had her own health crisis to overcome: one of addiction to meth, ecstasy, heroin, hallucinogens, and pills.
She, too, experienced rehab followed by relapse but eventually learned to manage her addiction through treatment and counseling. In her testimonial on Whole30’s blog, Hartwig says, “Thanks to my rehabilitation center and years of addiction counseling, I discovered and created recovery and maintenance strategies that worked very well.”
You may have heard or read that rehab is an ineffective concept but the facts just simply don’t support this claim. Rehabilitation centers, though not perfect (and nothing is), offer many the best hope of finding recovery and long-term addiction management.
Because rehabilitation enables an addict to cleanse his or her system of drugs and alcohol, receive counseling and support, and learn how to maintain a healthy rhythm of life without those crutches, it is often the best shot at success that he or she has.
Don’t hesitate to contact a treatment center out of fear that it won’t work. Call a local treatment center today and find the best rehab program for you or your loved one.