Substance abuse is a wide term that describes the abuse of, or dependency on, a variety of substances. These range from traditional ‘drugs’ such as heroin and cocaine, to less conventional substances such as glues and solvents. The term also covers alcohol abuse. Substance abuse is a feature of many cultures and societies in the world today and is a problem that is growing rather than decreasing. Helping people control their use of drugs and alcohol is a major challenge.

This article on substance abuse treatment is written by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

Substance abuse has become a major problem in the UK but facilities are improving all the time, with new techniques and treatments being developed constantly. There is a good deal of professional support to help people affected by substance abuse to overcome their dependency and live normal, productive lives once again.

Can substance abuse be treated?

Addictive behaviours such as substance abuse are very hard to treat and in some ways there is no cure. Once a person has shown a tendency towards addiction they will always be at risk of relapsing, or ‘falling off the wagon’, even if their substance abuse treatment seems to have been effective. Substance abuse is a lifelong problem that needs to be tackled by the person affected, every single day.

There are several treatments. Some involve medication but most consist primarily of counselling and psychological therapies. When looking for a solution to substance abuse, healthcare professionals and friends and family of the person affected must first overcome the hurdle of denial. Substance abuse treatment depends greatly on the mindset of the patient. Unless a person is prepared to admit that they have a problem, it is unlikely that they will even seek treatment, let alone respond to it.


The initial phase of treating substance abuse is to overcome physical dependency. This is known as detoxification and is best undertaken at a specialist inpatient centre where the process can be monitored by expert medical staff. The detoxification process will take around a week, during which almost all victims of substance abuse will suffer some sort of withdrawal symptoms, ranging from mild shakes and nausea to delirium tremens (or DTs), which can be severe and even life threatening.

At this stage, there are a range of drugs that can ease the symptoms of withdrawal, from drug substitutes such as methadone for heroin addicts, to diazepam (Valium) to help ease the physical and emotional stress.

Dealing with the causes

Having cleared the system of the physical effects, the next stage of the substance abuse treatment is to identify the reasons behind the problem. The best place for this is a dedicated rehab centre. Here, expert counsellors, psychologists and other specialists can use their experience and expertise to help victims of substance abuse to identify the root cause of their problem. They can also suggest new ways of thinking and living that can help those affected overcome their substance abuse dependency.

The rehab phase of treatment can last for anything from 4 weeks to several years, depending on the extent of the substance abuse problem and the complexity of the underlying problems.

Support for the victims

Once formal treatment has been completed, it is important that victims of substance abuse continue to receive support from both formal groups and from their family and friends. It is important for all concerned to remember that substance abuse is not a sign of weak will or poor character, but a disease that needs understanding and treatment. It is likely that a series of follow up appointments will be required over several years before a patient can say they are in advanced recovery.

Local support groups are invaluable in this respect. They offer a judgement free environment in which fellow substance abuse victims can share their experiences and support each other, in ways that people who have not experienced the problem could never do.

So, can the treatment be successful?

Substance abuse covers such a wide range of problems; no two cases will ever be the same, and so no two treatments will ever follow the same course. Thus, the success of treatment also varies widely. Some people, there is no doubt, respond well to their therapy and recover to live a healthy and productive life, staying ‘sober’ and ‘clean’. However, addictive behaviour, such as substance abuse, can never truly be cured and the victim will always remain at risk. Each new day really is a continued battle against giving in to addiction.

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Substance abuse – can it be treated successfully?
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