Seeking treatment for a drug addiction is the first step on the path to recovery. But once the initial treatment is finished, what comes next?
As with any chronic illness, you start a treatment plan, and when the disease is under control, you move on to maintenance. Lifelong recovery is possible with the right maintenance.
Recovery starts with “aftercare,” which is the continued outpatient treatment a person receives after leaving a treatment program or detoxification facility. Aftercare may include:
- Medication to treat the substance use disorder
- Ongoing therapy with a psychologist or counselor
- Follow-up meetings with a medical professional or addiction specialist
- Group counseling
- Peer support like 12-step programs or SMART recovery groups
- Additional education, such as anger management or job skills training
Aftercare can last anywhere from a few months to a lifetime. Someone in recovery will mostly likely meet with their healthcare provider to reassess progress and treatment after a designated period of time, and as recovery continues, some treatments may be reduced or even eliminated. If you feel like you’re beginning to relapse or need additional support, your provider may recommend increasing or altering your aftercare plan to address your immediate needs. Following a recovery plan is a critical component for success, especially in the first three months.
Research shows the highest risk for relapse is in the first 90 days after initial treatment.1 The odds of sustaining recovery are lower without an aftercare program.
Aftercare has a variety of benefits. Therapy, peer groups, and continued education can help build confidence and skill development. These groups help people in recovery learn how to cope with stresses, and how to interact with family in healthy ways. Peer groups also give support and encouragement, offering someone to call if cravings kick in.
Below, you’ll find more information about the different types of aftercare programs available. Talk with your doctor or an addiction specialist to decide which programs will offer you or your loved one the most benefits. Maintaining recovery from a substance use disorder is a life-long process, and the right tools and support make it achievable.
Types of aftercare
Probably the most well-known type of aftercare are peer-support programs, including the 12-step models such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. This model draws on the social support offered by peer discussion to help promote and sustain substance-free lifestyles. They are peer support groups where members attend regular meetings and have a sponsor, a more experienced person in recovery who can offer individual support.2 These groups usually include some kind of spiritual component, and members of 12-step programs often attend meetings for the rest of their lives.
Most drug addiction treatment programs encourage patients to participate in group therapy during and after formal treatment.3 In addition to the 12-step programs discussed above, there are many other peer support groups for a person in recovery, including SMART recovery groups and Rational Recovery. These alternative support groups offer members support and a sense community, along with keeping them accountable for maintaining recovery gains. Peer support groups—including SMART,4 Rational Recovery5, and 12-step programs—can offer an added layer of community-level social support to help people in recovery with new healthy lifestyle goals.6
Booster Sessions/Outpatient Follow-Up
Some treatment facilities offer follow-up visits after a person in recovery has completed the initial treatment program. These visits, called “booster sessions,” are scheduled at regular intervals and are meant to serve as a refresher. In addition to assessing the treatment plan and how it’s working, booster sessions can also give patients additional coping tools or techniques to avoid relapse.7
Meeting with a counselor gives a person in recovery a safe place to share their feelings, a sounding board to vent their frustrations, and a guide who can help them tackle problems that arise.8 Counselors also can identify warning signs of relapse, helping a person in recovery to get additional help or treatment if needed.
"I got myself into some counseling. And it was through sharing my story and hearing everyone else tell their stories, that actually I started to heal."
In therapy, a person in recovery will learn will learn techniques to change their thought patterns and in turn, change their behaviors.9 Among many other benefits, behavioral therapy can help a person recovering from a substance use disorder to learn new coping skills, set goals, and stay motivated to maintain their recovery.
In some circumstances, medication is needed to help a person in recovery maintain a substance-free life. In cases of nicotine or alcohol addiction, the medication may be tapered off over time.10 In the case of addiction to heroin or painkillers, medication is more often used as a long-term recovery treatment.
“When it comes to finding treatment, never give up hope and always reach out. There are many of us who struggle every day. No one should try to hide the fact that they suffer from this disease. Reaching out to somebody is a step in the right direction.”
Dual Diagnosis Support
This kind of aftercare treatment is designed for patients who have other mental health problems in addition to a substance use disorder.11 The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends that “treatment must address the needs of the whole person to be successful.”12 Dual diagnosis support works to treat all issues that will help a patient sustain recovery. Dual diagnosis support is individually-tailored to each patient’s needs, so treatment plans will vary.
Sober Living Homes
A sober living home (sometimes called a "sober house" or "recovery house") helps a person in recovery make the transition from treatment back to daily life by providing a safe, substance-free environment. Sober living houses (SLHs) are alcohol and drug free living environments for individuals attempting to abstain from alcohol and drugs. They are not licensed or funded by state or local governments, and the residents themselves pay for costs. The philosophy of recovery emphasizes 12-step group attendance and peer support.13