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Recovery From Substance Abuse

January 2008 - An expert panel's report recently published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment concludes that abstinence from alcohol and drugs is only the initial stage in recovery for people with substance abuse disorders. The report from the Betty Ford Institute explains that although recovery is generally recognized as a primary treatment goal, there is no widely accepted definition of what the term actually means.

The authors comment:

"Recovery may be the best word to summarize all the positive benefits to physical, mental, and social health that can happen when alcohol- and other drug-dependent individuals get the help they need."

The report suggests that recovery may be defined as "a voluntarily maintained lifestyle characterized by sobriety, personal health, and citizenship."

The report considers key components of this view of recovery:

  • "Sobriety" - complete abstinence from alcohol and all other non-prescribed drugs - is regarded as necessary, but not in itself sufficient. A classification based on the duration of sobriety is suggested: "early" (one month to one year); "sustained" (one to five years); and "stable" (five years or longer).
  • "Personal health" may be of particular importance to substance abusers and their families, as well as to society. This term refers not only to physical and mental health, but also to social health (participation in social roles and supports).
  • "Citizenship" refers to "giving back" to community and society - an important traditional component of recovery in need of further elaboration.

The panel hope this definition will promote more realistic perceptions of recovery, and help overcome some of the remaining obstacles to substance abuse treatment - including the associated stigma. They compare being "in recovery" to being a "cancer survivor" - a term reflecting research evidence that the risk of relapse is significantly reduced for patients who remain cancer-free after five years. Discussion of survival also has improved prevention and early intervention.

The authors hope that a new definition of recovery:

"...might be the beginning of a similar course of events in the addiction field. If recovery can be effectively captured, distilled, and communicated, it can come to be expectable by those now suffering from addiction."


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