According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug abuse typically begins when the individual takes a substance voluntarily.

Today, that substance is just as likely to be prescription medications as it is a controlled or illegal street drug. For some, the drug isn’t a pill or injection at all, but a liquid – alcohol.

But over time and with repeated exposure, whether for medical or recreational purposes or both, the brain begins to change. We see this every day as we treat addicts who desperately want to do well in drug treatment, but their own brain has become their strongest opponent in their efforts to achieve this goal.

Understanding the Addicted Human Brain

Every week, we talk with loved ones and family members who are struggling mightily to comprehend why their addicted loved one doesn’t just stop taking the drug or drinking alcohol.

From the outside looking in, of course it is incomprehensible. To truly understand what makes drug addiction so difficult to break free from would require a trip inside the brain of a drug addict or alcoholic.

In fact, both addicted individuals and their family members need the same basic education during drug addiction treatment. They need to understand how drug addiction happens and why drug rehab is such a necessary part of the drug addiction treatment process.

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A Step By Step Through Drug Treatment

While every person’s path will in some ways be unique to their situation, needs and treatment goals, in some ways all treatment paths will look alike.

This is because the body and brain must first be cleansed of active and residual substances before the real “meat” of the treatment process can be effective.

Here, we like to offer a short outline of the standard drug rehab and treatment protocol, just to give the individual and their worried loved ones a frame of reference for what to expect and what lies ahead.

Here, we refer back to NIDA’s recommendations both for the process and the optimal outcome:

Detoxification. Sometimes called “detox” or “rehab” for short, this initial phase cleanses body and brain of active and residual substances.

Medication. The use of medication to support addicts striving to break free from drug addiction is a complex and controversial one. However, in some cases, medication in a controlled and monitored medical environment can be beneficial as part of the treatment process.

Counseling. Behavioral counseling often includes drug education, esteem building, conflict management skills, relationship counseling (with a partner and/or family), stress management planning and preparation for a return to daily life after treatment.

Treatment of co-occurring issues. Even in today’s aware society, it is not uncommon for individuals to self-medicate co-occurring health conditions such as anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder or ADD/ADHD with substances, either prescription or recreational. Often this is because the individual knows something is wrong and that the substance seems to ease the discomfort, but does not know that it is an underlying health condition that can be addressed through other, healthier means. So we often evaluate for co-occurring issues at an appropriate time later in the treatment process.

Long-term outpatient care and support. Once the individual has successfully completed rehab and treatment, we encourage them to celebrate such a significant achievement. However, in nearly every case, there is still a lengthy journey yet ahead, and one in which ongoing care and support is greatly needed. This may include regular sessions with an outpatient counselor or therapist, attendance at support groups, volunteering in the treatment community, vocational and relational support and other options as may make sense and are deemed safe and appropriate at each stage of the long-term treatment process.

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Current Drug Treatment Outcome Statistics

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health consistently highlights the large gap separating those who could benefit from treatment and those who actually receive treatment.

For example, of the more than 22 million people who could benefit from access to treatment, less than 3 million of those received comprehensive treatment at the level recommended via a specialty treatment facility or center.

This is a source of ongoing frustration for loved ones, people struggling with addiction and those, like ourselves, dedicated to supporting individuals to break free from addiction to drugs or alcohol.

The reasons why some who need treatment do receive it and others who need it do not are complex and have to do with everything from health insurance coverage to finances. In the case of minors, they may not have informed a parent or guardian of their struggles with addiction.

For adults suffering through addiction, it may be difficult for them to leave their place of employment to receive treatment. Here, it can be an issue of not wanting to be barred from returning to work due to a history of addiction, inability to go without a paycheck during the treatment period, fear of job loss or other reasons besides.

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The Prognosis After Receiving Addiction Treatment

NIDA states that addiction is both treatable and chronic. This highlights the fundamental complexity of managing and, where possible, curing an addicted individual of their craving for the substance.

Here, it is critical to understand that relapse one or many times during the treatment process is considered normal. A relapse in no way indicates treatment has failed. And in fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reports that individuals suffering with asthma and hypertension are more likely to relapse than individuals suffering with addiction to substances!

Rather than viewing an addicted individual as a hopeless case that cannot be helped or cured, it is vital to shift public and personal perception to that of an individual suffering from a chronic illness that, like any other serious health issue, requires attentive, skilled, ongoing management and maintenance towards the goal of remission.

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