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Self-Help Programs vs. Formal Treatment for Substance Abuse

While addiction can be messy and destructive, treatment is the opposite of that. Coming to terms with getting addiction treatment is a huge milestone. Whether someone realizes it by themselves after hitting rock bottom, or their loved ones engaged in an intervention to get them help, it’s a huge step toward recovery. This is when they start to explore the differences between self-help programs vs. formal treatment for substance abuse.  Both provide help for substance abuse, yet they do it so differently. It’s easier to think that anyone can merely control their addiction. The reality is that addiction is a brain disease that directly impacts someone’s ability to make decisions and control their actions. In the end, self-help programs and formal treatment are two very different approaches to rehab, but both are important. 

What’s Formal Treatment for Substance Abuse

Formal treatment is the one offered by trained professionals. Think traditional drug and alcohol rehab centers. Most formal treat settings will use evidence-based treatments to address substance abuse – meaning their efforts will be backed by reliable and substantial research.  Formal treatment aims to base the program on addiction recovery principles and tried-and-tested approaches that are believed to be more effective than guesswork. Examples of formal treatment for substance abuse include:

  • Addiction therapy
  • Inpatient and outpatient rehab programs
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Counseling
  • Psychotherapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Monitored detox
  • Psychiatry
  • Group therapy or therapeutic communities 

The Basic Principles of Addiction Recovery 

Formal treatment focuses its approach on following the basic principles of addiction recovery. Even if they include different strategies and treatments, they all address basic needs. The basic principles of addiction recovery are laid out by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and include:

  • Physical well-being: addiction treatment should start to address the physical damage caused by addiction while treating withdrawal symptoms simultaneously. 
  • Mental health: most addiction cases also experience co-occurring disorders. The right rehab program will address mental illness and substance abuse together. 
  • Social skills: it’s easier for addicts to withdraw from social situations, but working on social skills in treatment is paramount for long-lasting recovery. 
  • Triggers: every person with a drug or alcohol addiction experiences specific triggers that prompt them to use again. Receiving treatment helps patients not only identify these triggers but also find ways to cope and control them. 

Understanding Self-Help Programs for Addiction

On the other hand, many addicts start their recovery journey with self-help programs. These are self-guided programs that encourage people to improve by themselves without the assistance of others. Self-help programs might be joining a fellowship of people deadline with a similar problem, Alcoholics Anonymous, for example.  Unlike formal treatment, self-help programs don’t rely on professional guidance. Instead, the members follow some guidelines and support each other. Even though formal treatment incorporates and promotes self-help meetings, they supplement that with professional help.  Examples of self-help programs include:

  • 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
  • Secular recovery groups like Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) meetings. 
  • Addiction recovery books. 

What Research Says

In reality, there’s not enough research that focuses on comparing self-help programs vs. formal treatment. Mainly because most people combine self-help with formal treatment, thus it’s challenging to see the difference. Trying to analyze self-help groups is also tricky as most programs are anonymous.  One systematic review done in 2006 found no studies that demonstrated the effectiveness of programs like AA. However, an internal investigation conducted by Alcoholics Anonymous claims that 26% of people who attend a meeting will still be following one year later. According to the organization, almost 33% of their members attend meetings and have continuously stayed sober for over 10 years.  Some other studies suggest that groups like AA or NA have a more dismal success rate, with as low as 5% staying sober after the first year. However, research states that those who combine self-help with formal treatments are twice as likely to establish themselves in sobriety.  So far, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is touted as the best formal addiction treatment. It’s also one with the highest amount of empirical support. There are countless studies on the effectiveness of this approach.

How to Choose Between Self-Help Program vs. Formal Treatment

Choosing the right treatment to beat addiction is a hugely important decision. The truth of the matter is most people struggling with addiction need professional help. To starters, withdrawal symptoms from most substances can often be life-threatening. Not having the proper medical care to address psychological and physical effects can be devastating and make the recovery process complicated.  Most addiction specialists will recommend a joint approach that focuses primarily on formal treatment. However, they still encourage and incorporate participation in self-help programs. By doing so, patients can have a supportive environment they can be part of once they’re ready to leave treatment.  As you are discussing treatment options with your family, here are some things to remember:

  • There’s no single approach to recovery. A comprehensive and personalized treatment plan is the best option. 
  • People with a severe addiction will significantly benefit from professional help and resources, particularly at the beginning of their recovery during the detox process. 
  • Those with underlying mental health conditions such as past trauma (PTSD), anxiety, or depression, need professional assistance to treat both issues simultaneously. 
  • Individuals uncomfortable with the spiritual elements of 12-step programs may do better with a more secular approach, and formal treatment offers that.
  • While there’s no solid evidence so far, a combination of self-help programs and formal treatment seems to be the most effective approach to recovery. 
  • Treatment facilities that offer inpatient rehabs, support groups, dual diagnosis treatment, and other forms of inpatient programs can be beneficial for people with co-occurring mental health disorders.

How to Get Help

If you’re looking for substance abuse help for yourself or a loved one, it can be intimidating to start looking. The problem with addiction is that it’s such a delicate subject most people will not discuss it with other family members or friends. It isn’t as if you would ask a co-worker for recommendations on treatment. This often leaves people feeling lost and hopeless. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, you can always contact us to speak with an addiction specialist confidentially. Our team will explore your case and listen to all your concerns and questions. We know you feel scared, tired, and hopeless. This is why we focus on listening to your needs to offer a personalized treatment program that adapts to you and only you. Yes, picking up the phone and calling 866-305-2090 is scary, but the possibility of dying of an overdose is even more terrifying. Start your recovery journey today. [learn_more caption=”Sources:”] Kelly, John F.; Humphreys, Keith; Ferri, Marica (2020). “Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs for alcohol use disorder“. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 3: CD012880. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD012880.pub2. PMC 7065341. PMID 32159228. Dawson DA, Grant BF, Stinson FS, Chou PS. Estimating the effect of help-seeking on achieving recovery from alcohol dependence. Addiction. 2006 Jun;101(6):824-34. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2006.01433.x. PMID: 16696626. [/learn_more]

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