Research Helps Identify How Alcohol and Drug Abusers Find Sobriety

Many people are able to resolve substance abuse problems on their own, but a recent study suggests that more than half need help.

In a study of more than 40,000 men and women, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers found that a little less than half of those who admitted to an alcohol and/or drug problem reported getting sober on their own. About 54 percent of those in the study said they relied on programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous to make a lasting change.

John Kelly, PhD, director of the Recovery Research Institute in the MGH Department of Psychiatry, says that the high number of people who worked through their substance abuse challenges themselves should be an encouraging sign for anyone overwhelmed at the idea of getting sober.

“The number of people who have overcome serious alcohol and other drug problems, and exactly how they have achieved that, has been a question of increasing general interest and public health interest,” Dr. Kelly says. “Understanding how people recover and sustain remission is important from both a policy and a service provision standpoint, and finding that many people can and do resolve significant problems on their own is an important message that we hope can enhance individuals’ sense of hope, personal agency and increased confidence in their ability to change.”

Defining “In Recovery”

The type of drug and the length and severity of the addiction played significant roles in determining how people recovered. People whose drug or alcohol use started at a young age, and those who admitted to using multiple substances were more likely to rely on outside help to quit. Similarly, people with a criminal background or who had been diagnosed with a mental disorder were also more inclined to use medical treatment or some form of counseling. People with opioid painkiller problems were among the most likely to require medical assistance, while those who wanted to quit marijuana were among the least likely to do so with outside assistance.

Interestingly, less than half of the people who admitted to resolving an alcohol or drug problem described themselves as being “in recovery.” Dr. Kelly suggests that this means the medical community may need to rethink how that term is applied and how to better describe people who are overcoming drug and alcohol abuse issues.

Getting Help

While plenty of people quit drinking or doing drugs without assistance, many people rely on therapy, replacement products, and other external means to achieve sobriety. In the Mass General study, the most common form of assistance was a mutual self-help group. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were among the most widely used organizations. The next most common form of assistance was medical treatment, either in an inpatient or outpatient setting that often relied on anti-craving or anti-relapse medications. About 20 percent of the people who said they relied on outside help turned to sober housing, recovery community centers, and faith-based programs. More than a third of those who overcame drug and alcohol addiction with help used more than one type of outside assistance.

You may be able to resolve your substance abuse problems on your own or with the help of a friend or loved one. There are certainly many online resources to help you focus your efforts. For many people who simply want to drink less, for example, self-discipline and personal motivation may be enough. But if you have a serious drug or alcohol problem, consider outside help. Talking with your doctor or finding an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting near you can be a good start.

“Many clinicians and researchers­—as well as people in the general public—believe that to overcome a drug or alcohol problem you need to ‘go to rehab’ or other treatment or attend an organization like AA,” Kelly adds. “These findings indicate that, while many of the more severely affected individuals do indeed follow those paths, many do not, indicating a need to broaden our collective cultural mindset. We also have many additional findings from this survey—covering things like changes in quality of life and well-being in the months and years after resolving significant alcohol or drug problems, how people with opioid or cannabis problems differ in clinical characteristics, and recovery pathways from other drugs like alcohol or stimulants—that will be published in the coming months.”

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