Phases of Addiction Treatment

Being treated for an addiction to alcohol or another drug is rarely a discrete, short-term experience. Typically, individuals who are attempting to overcome a substance abuse problem will complete a multi-phased process that involves several steps as he or she progresses from the depths of addiction to the bright promise of long-term recovery.

Each person who is healing from chemical dependency can expect to walk a unique path of recovery. However, when that path involves formal professional treatment, the experience may involve the following phases:

Phase 1:  Admission – The first part of an individual’s treatment experience involves the process of actually entering a program. But in the world of addiction treatment, admission involves a bit more than merely completing some paperwork and arranging for payment. At most comprehensive residential addiction treatment programs, the admissions process involves thorough assessments and the setting of short-and long-term objectives. The assessments, which are often referred to as biopsychosocial evaluations, are designed to ensure that the treatment professionals have pertinent information on all aspects of the individual’s life and health, so that they may develop treatment plans that are as focused and personalized as possible. The goal-setting component of the admissions process ensures that the individual in treatment and the professionals with whom he or she will be working are aligned regarding the desired outcomes of treatment. The process of setting goals also ensures that the individual who is receiving care understands that he or she will be playing an active role in the treatment process.

Phase 2: Detoxification – In order to fully engage in the treatment experience, individuals must rid their bodies of the substance or substances upon which they have become dependent. When an addicted individual stops using the drug or drugs that he or she has been abusing, he or she may experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms. This experience is referred to as withdrawal. If a person has been incapable of completing withdrawal prior to starting treatment, he or she may participate in medically monitored detoxification, or detox, either at the program or at a specialized detox center. During medically monitored detox, individuals have round-the-clock care by trained professionals who will protect their health and help to minimize the discomfort of withdrawal. Depending upon the policies and protocols of the particular program, detox may involve the administration of certain prescription medications to ease the process, and may also involve the start of individual or other forms of therapy to prepare the individual for recovery. Most importantly, detox is a safe place in which individuals can begin to strengthen their bodies and minds in order to make the most of their treatment experience and empower themselves to achieve long-term recovery.

Phase 3: Therapy and Education – Once a person has completed detox, he or she will typically transfer directly into the therapeutic and educational phase of treatment. Depending upon several factors that are unique to the individual, this phase may last from a few weeks to several months, and may occur over a variety of treatment levels, including inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization programs (PHP), intensive outpatient programs (IOP), and traditional outpatient services. During this phase of treatment, the individual will learn about the disease of addiction, will participate in a variety of therapeutic activities, and will develop the skills and strategies that will prevent relapse and promote lifelong sobriety. The types of therapy that a person will receive, and the levels of care that he or she will complete, will reflect the needs, strengths, and goals that were identified during the admissions process. The therapeutic and educational components of treatment may also include treatment for co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and similar issues that may have contributed to or been impacted by the individual’s substance abuse and addiction.

Phase 4: Continuing Care – This level, which is often also referred to as aftercare or ongoing support, can continue for years following the completion of the more formal phases of treatment that were described in the previous sections. Continuing care may include IOP, PHP, and traditional outpatient services, and may also involve participating in a 12-step program or similar support organization. In its broadest sense, continuing care encompasses any services that are designed to support the individual’s continued recovery after he or she has completed the initial phases of treatment. Thus, for a person who completes an inpatient or residential program, PHP and IOP may be part of a continuing care plan. For a person whose primary treatment occurred at the PHP or IOP level, continuing care may begin with a 12-step support group and/or a referral for outpatient therapy with a community-based resource provider. The day an individual begins treatment, his or her treatment team should begin to develop his or her continuing care plan, so that by the time treatment is completed, the individual will have a thorough list of the referrals, organizations, and other resources that will support his or her efforts to maintain and build upon the progress that he or she made while in treatment.

Again, it is important to understand that the path of recovery is unique for each individual. Some people will progress through all of the phases, types of treatment, and other elements that are described on this page, while others will participate in only some of what is elaborated upon in the previous sections. The goal with addiction treatment is not to find a perfect program or process; instead, the main objective in choosing where and how to heal from a substance use disorder is to find the program that is best suited to the individual’s needs, and to follow a personalized process that best prepares the individual to achieve, maintain, and exceed his or her specific objectives.

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