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Scientifically based approaches to drug addiction treatment

This section presents several examples of treatment approaches and components that have been developed and tested for efficacy through research supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Each approach is designed to address certain aspects of drug addiction and its consequences for the individual, family, and society. The approaches are to be used to supplement or enhance not replace existing treatment programs. This section is not a complete list of efficacious, scientifically based treatment approaches. Additional approaches are under development as part of NIDA's continuing support of treatment research.

Relapse Prevention, a cognitive-behavioral therapy, was developed for the treatment of problem drinking and adapted later for cocaine addicts. Cognitive-behavioral strategies are based on the theory that learning processes play a critical role in the development of maladaptive behavioral patterns. Individuals learn to identify and correct problematic behaviors. Relapse prevention encompasses several cognitive-behavioral strategies that facilitate abstinence as well as provide help for people who experience relapse.

The relapse prevention approach to the treatment of cocaine addiction consists of a collection of strategies intended to enhance self-control. Specific techniques include exploring the positive and negative consequences of continued use, self-monitoring to recognize drug cravings early on and to identify high-risk situations for use, and developing strategies for coping with and avoiding high-risk situations and the desire to use. A central element of this treatment is anticipating the problems patients are likely to meet and helping them develop effective coping strategies.

Research indicates that the skills individuals learn through relapse prevention therapy remain after the completion of treatment. In one study, most people receiving this cognitive-behavioral approach maintained the gains they made in treatment throughout the year following treatment.


Carroll, K.; Rounsaville, B.; and Keller, D. Relapse prevention strategies for the treatment of cocaine abuse. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 17(3): 249-265, 1991.

Carroll, K.; Rounsaville, B.; Nich, C.; Gordon, L.; Wirtz, P.; and Gawin, F. One-year follow-up of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy for cocaine dependence: delayed emergence of psychotherapy effects. Archives of General Psychiatry 51: 989-997, 1994.

Marlatt, G. and Gordon, J.R., eds. Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors. New York: Guilford Press, 1985.

The Matrix Model provides a framework for engaging stimulant abusers in treatment and helping them achieve abstinence. Patients learn about issues critical to addiction and relapse, receive direction and support from a trained therapist, become familiar with self-help programs, and are monitored for drug use by urine testing. The program includes education for family members affected by the addiction.

The therapist functions simultaneously as teacher and coach, fostering a positive, encouraging relationship with the patient and using that relationship to reinforce positive behavior change. The interaction between the therapist and the patient is realistic and direct but not confrontational or parental. Therapists are trained to conduct treatment sessions in a way that promotes the patient's self-esteem, dignity, and self-worth. A positive relationship between patient and therapist is a critical element for patient retention.

Treatment materials draw heavily on other tested treatment approaches. Thus, this approach includes elements pertaining to the areas of relapse prevention, family and group therapies, drug education, and self-help participation. Detailed treatment manuals contain work sheets for individual sessions; other components include family educational groups, early recovery skills groups, relapse prevention groups, conjoint sessions, urine tests, 12-step programs, relapse analysis, and social support groups.

A number of projects have demonstrated that participants treated with the Matrix model demonstrate statistically significant reductions in drug and alcohol use, improvements in psychological indicators, and reduced risky sexual behaviors associated with HIV transmission. These reports, along with evidence suggesting comparable treatment response for methamphetamine users and cocaine users and demonstrated efficacy in enhancing naltrexone treatment of opiate addicts, provide a body of empirical support for the use of the model.


Huber, A.; Ling, W.; Shoptaw, S.; Gulati, V.; Brethen, P.; and Rawson, R. Integrating treatments for methamphetamine abuse: A psychosocial perspective. Journal of Addictive Diseases 16: 41-50, 1997.

Rawson, R.; Shoptaw, S.; Obert, J.L.; McCann, M.; Hasson, A.; Marinelli-Casey, P.; Brethen, P.; and Ling, W. An intensive outpatient approach for cocaine abuse: The Matrix model. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 12(2): 117-127, 1995.

Supportive-expressive psychotherapy is a time-limited, focused psychotherapy that has been adapted for heroin- and cocaine-addicted individuals. The therapy has two main components:

Special attention is paid to the role of drugs in relation to problem feelings and behaviors, and how problems may be solved without recourse to drugs.

The efficacy of individual supportive-expressive psychotherapy has been tested with patients in methadone maintenance treatment who had psychiatric problems. In a comparison with patients receiving only drug counseling, both groups fared similarly with regard to opiate use, but the supportive-expressive psychotherapy group had lower cocaine use and required less methadone. Also, the patients who received supportive-expressive psychotherapy maintained many of the gains they had made. In an earlier study, supportive-expressive psychotherapy, when added to drug counseling, improved outcomes for opiate addicts in methadone treatment with moderately severe psychiatric problems.


Luborsky, L. Principles of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: A Manual for Supportive-Expressive (SE) Treatment. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Woody, G.E.; McLellan, A.T.; Luborsky, L.; and O'Brien, C.P. Psychotherapy in community methadone programs: a validation study. American Journal of Psychiatry 152(9): 1302-1308, 1995.

Woody, G.E.; McLellan, A.T.; Luborsky, L.; and O'Brien, C.P. Twelve month follow-up of psychotherapy for opiate dependence. American Journal of Psychiatry 144: 590-596, 1987.

Individualized drug counseling focuses directly on reducing or stopping the addict's illicit drug use. It also addresses related areas of impaired functioning such as employment status, illegal activity, family/social relations as well as the content and structure of the patient's recovery program. Through its emphasis on short-term behavioral goals, individualized drug counseling helps the patient develop coping strategies and tools for abstaining from drug use and then maintaining abstinence. The addiction counselor encourages 12-step participation and makes referrals for needed supplemental medical, psychiatric, employment, and other services. Individuals are encouraged to attend sessions one or two times per week.
In a study that compared opiate addicts receiving only methadone to those receiving methadone coupled with counseling, individuals who received only methadone showed minimal improvement in reducing opiate use. The addition of counseling produced significantly more improvement. The addition of onsite medical/psychiatric, employment, and family services further improved outcomes.

In another study with cocaine addicts, individualized drug counseling, together with group drug counseling, was quite effective in reducing cocaine use. Thus, it appears that this approach has great utility with both heroin and cocaine addicts in outpatient treatment.


McLellan, A.T.; Arndt, I.; Metzger, D.S.; Woody, G.E.; and O'Brien, C.P. The effects of psychosocial services in substance abuse treatment. Journal of the American Medical Association 269(15): 1953-1959, 1993.

McLellan, A.T.; Woody, G.E.; Luborsky, L.; and O'Brien, C.P. Is the counselor an 'active ingredient' in substance abuse treatment? Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 176: 423-430, 1988.

Woody, G.E.; Luborsky, L.; McLellan, A.T.; O'Brien, C.P.; Beck, A.T.; Blaine, J.; Herman, I.; and Hole, A. Psychotherapy for opiate addicts: Does it help? Archives of General Psychiatry 40: 639-645, 1983.

Crits-Cristoph, P.; Siqueland, L.; Blaine, J.; Frank, A.; Luborsky, L.; Onken, L.S.; Muenz, L.; Thase, M.E.; Weiss, R.D.; Gastfriend, D.R.; Woody, G.; Barber, J.P.; Butler, S.F.; Daley, D.; Bishop, S.; Najavits, L.M.; Lis, J.; Mercer, D.; Griffin, M.L.; Moras, K.; and Beck, A. Psychosocial treatments for cocaine dependence: Results of the NIDA Cocaine Collaborative Study. Archives of General Psychiatry (in press).

Motivational enhancement therapy is a client-centered counseling approach for initiating behavior change by helping clients to resolve ambivalence about engaging in treatment and stopping drug use. This approach employs strategies to evoke rapid and internally motivated change in the client, rather than guiding the client stepwise through the recovery process. This therapy consists of an initial assessment battery session, followed by two to four individual treatment sessions with a therapist. The first treatment session focuses on providing feedback generated from the initial assessment battery to stimulate discussion regarding personal substance use and to elicit self-motivational statements. Motivational interviewing principles are used to strengthen motivation and build a plan for change. Coping strategies for high-risk situations are suggested and discussed with the client. In subsequent sessions, the therapist monitors change, reviews cessation strategies being used, and continues to encourage commitment to change or sustained abstinence. Clients are sometimes encouraged to bring a significant other to sessions. This approach has been used successfully with alcoholics and with marijuana-dependent individuals.


Budney, A.J.; Kandel, D.B.; Cherek, D.R.; Martin, B.R.; Stephens, R.S.; and Roffman, R. College on problems of drug dependence meeting, Puerto Rico (June 1996). Marijuana use and dependence. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 45: 1-11, 1997.

Miller, W.R. Motivational interviewing: research, practice and puzzles. Addictive Behaviors 61(6): 835-842, 1996.

Stephens, R.S.; Roffman, R.A.; and Simpson, E.E. Treating adult marijuana dependence: a test of the relapse prevention model. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 62: 92-99, 1994.

Behavioral therapy for adolescents incorporates the principle that unwanted behavior can be changed by clear demonstration of the desired behavior and consistent reward of incremental steps toward achieving it. Therapeutic activities include fulfilling specific assignments, rehearsing desired behaviors, and recording and reviewing progress, with praise and privileges given for meeting assigned goals. Urine samples are collected regularly to monitor drug use. The therapy aims to equip the patient to gain three types of control:

Stimulus control helps patients avoid situations associated with drug use and learn to spend more time in activities incompatible with drug use.

Urge control helps patients recognize and change thoughts, feelings, and plans that lead to drug use.

Social control involves family members and other people important in helping patients avoid drugs. A parent or significant other attends treatment sessions when possible and assists with therapy assignments and reinforcing desired behavior.

According to research studies, this therapy helps adolescents become drug free and increases their ability to remain drug free after treatment ends. Adolescents also show improvement in several other areas employment/school attendance, family relationships, depression, institutionalization, and alcohol use. Such favorable results are attributed largely to including family members in therapy and rewarding drug abstinence as verified by urinalysis.


Azrin, N.H.; Acierno, R.; Kogan, E.; Donahue, B.; Besalel, V.; and McMahon, P.T. Follow-up results of supportive versus behavioral therapy for illicit drug abuse. Behavioral Research & Therapy 34(1): 41-46, 1996.

Azrin, N.H.; McMahon, P.T.; Donahue, B.; Besalel, V.; Lapinski, K.J.; Kogan, E.; Acierno, R.; and Galloway, E. Behavioral therapy for drug abuse: a controlled treatment outcome study. Behavioral Research & Therapy 32(8): 857-866, 1994.

Azrin, N.H.; Donohue, B.; Besalel, V.A.; Kogan, E.S.; and Acierno, R. Youth drug abuse treatment: A controlled outcome study. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse 3(3): 1-16, 1994.

Multidimensional family therapy (MDFT) for adolescents is an outpatient family-based drug abuse treatment for teenagers. MDFT views adolescent drug use in terms of a network of influences (that is, individual, family, peer, community) and suggests that reducing unwanted behavior and increasing desirable behavior occur in multiple ways in different settings. Treatment includes individual and family sessions held in the clinic, in the home, or with family members at the family, court, school, or other community locations.

During individual sessions, the therapist and adolescent work on important developmental tasks, such as developing decision-making, negotiation, and problem-solving skills. Teenagers acquire skills in communicating their thoughts and feelings to deal better with life stressors, and vocational skills. Parallel sessions are held with family members. Parents examine their particular parenting style, learning to distinguish influence from control and to have a positive and developmentally appropriate influence on their child.


Diamond, G.S., and Liddle, H.A. Resolving a therapeutic impasse between parents and adolescents in Multi-dimensional Family Therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 64(3): 481-488, 1996.

Schmidt, S.E.; Liddle, H.A.; and Dakof, G.A. Effects of multidimensional family therapy: Relationship of changes in parenting practices to symptom reduction in adolescent substance abuse. Journal of Family Psychology 10(1): 1-16, 1996.

This feature: Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research Based Guide, National Institute on drug addiction.

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