The month of January is an opportune time to get help for a drug or alcohol addiction, especially on the heels of the deadliest year yet for Americans with substance use disorders. 81,000 overdose deaths occurred last year— a new record high for the United States, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control.
Such statistics drive home the importance of treatment for substance abuse— and not just treatment alone, but the right kind of treatment: treatment that’s specialized to meet the specific needs of the person struggling.
The fact is that many people in this country struggle to access any treatment at all. And, even those who have the good fortune of more than one option face the challenge of choosing a treatment center that will provide them with quality care, in an industry that, unfortunately, has some bad apples.
If there were anyone who could give trusted advice about specialized treatment and what to look for when considering rehab programs, it would be Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Beau Nelson. Dr. Nelson oversees all clinical programming and staff at FHE Health and has experience in acute psychiatric care, general medical settings, and across the full continuum of substance abuse care. His approach to clinical programming is one of “Integrated Behavioral Healthcare,” which maximizes medical, psychiatric, and clinical services to treat each patient as a whole person.
What Is Specialized Treatment and Why Does It Matter?
First, why is specialized treatment important for anyone seeking help for drug or alcohol abuse?
The short and easy answer is because the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says so in its Guide to Substance Abuse Services for Primary Care Clinicians. When triaging patients who have a substance use disorder, primary care clinicians are to refer these patients to “a specialized substance abuse treatment program,” the NIH states.
But what really is specialized treatment, and why is it the gold standard for substance abuse care? Dr. Nelson said specialized treatment has at least two defining attributes:
Substance Abuse vs. Mental Health Issues – The first is the distinction that it makes between a substance abuse problem and a mental health issue. Dr. Nelson explained that a quality provider will be able to identify the core problem and its root causes. For example, “while substances are involved, is the root of things more related to trauma, self-esteem, relationships, or other problematic behaviors that could use specialized mental health treatment?”
A specialized treatment center, then, can accurately diagnose and treat both substance use and mental health disorders. Often, too, a substance addiction will co-occur with a mental disorder— so treatment that can address both disorders as part of a comprehensive, medical, psychiatric, and therapeutic approach will be best for the patient’s prospects of recovery.
- Treatment That’s Tailored to Individual Needs – The second defining attribute of specialized treatment, Dr. Nelson said, is a “comprehensive program tailored to individual needs, such as First Responders, Women, Mental Health, etc.” Often, a treatment environment that addresses the unique psycho-social context in which a person’s addiction developed, providing peer-specific support groups where a person can feel safer and more connected, will be more therapeutically beneficial.
Other Things to Look for When Evaluating Treatment Programs
Having this basic definition to go by can be helpful when evaluating treatment programs. Even so, “how to decide what kind of treatment is going to work and give the most benefit to someone who is suffering is not easy,” Dr. Nelson conceded, adding that “there are so many slick webpages, promises of a great place, and lots of ‘testimonials.’”
“In the end what sets up a good treatment experience”—in addition to specialized rehab programs—is not any one thing but a composite of multiple things. Dr. Nelson threw out these “questions and ideas to think about when researching treatment facilities”:
“Quick Fixes” and “New Treatments” for Mental Health and Addiction Needs It’s not uncommon for rehab centers to claim they offer the newest, most innovative treatments for addiction and mental health disorders. Examine these claims with caution, especially if the rehab facility is a brand-new name in the industry without a well-established track record.
“When someone is suffering, the promise of a quick, painless, and guaranteed positive outcome is very tempting,” Dr. Nelson said. “Rather than the ‘quick fix’ … look for stability and services [in a treatment facility]. There are no guarantees; there are no cures; but there are many signs of a reputable provider.”
What Are the Provider’s Accreditations and Services, and Does It Have ‘Longevity’? “Look for providers who have accreditations beyond the minimum,” Dr. Nelson counseled. He explained that “accreditation is the process whereby the services of a provider are vetted by independent organizations that check up on the quality of those services.”
“Look for a place that has longevity in providing services; look for the qualifications of the staff and the variety of services that are offered. These are things that someone cannot buy, oversell, or pretend.”
Dr. Nelson also emphasized checking to “see if the staff [at a facility] are fully licensed, practitioners.
Similarly, an exploration of treatment services can shed light on the depth of staff expertise and the populations that they are qualified to serve.
What’s the Facility’s Model for Care? In other words, “is there medical, psychiatric, and clinical care that goes beyond the basics, in case it is needed?”
What Specialty Programming Offerings Are Available? This consideration brings us back full circle to the importance of specialized treatment and “the specialty programming aspects that can help patients focus on specific issues,” in Dr. Nelson’s words. For example, “does a gender-specific treatment program look better? People may want to reduce distractions and feel more comfortable in a special environment where they are going to focus on their issues better.”
Is There a Good Aftercare Program in Place? A quality rehab program will position people for long-term success in recovery after they leave treatment, with the help of various supports. It’s always wise to look into those supports on the front end of a rehab experience: As Dr. Nelson put it, “For when someone leaves rehab, is there follow-up, support, and effective discharge planning?”
Ultimately, finding quality care for a drug or alcohol problem isn’t just crucial and worth the extra effort— it’s also feasible.