Effectiveness of Therapeutic Communities in Drug Treatment


In a January 2014 issue of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse, within an article entitled “Therapeutic Engagement as a Predictor of Retention in Adolescent Therapeutic Community treatment,” authors offer that Therapeutic Communities (TCs) are effective in so far as they lead to reduced substance use along with reductions of other types of delinquent behavior. This isn’t a new assertion, nor is the apologist follow-up that much is still unknown in terms of what factors increase the likelihood that an adolescent will remain, much less thrive in treatment. Strange, since the Therapeutic Community model has been around for just over fifty years, ever since Synanon was founded in the late fifties to address problems of addiction. One might think that fifty years was enough time to give the Therapeutic Community model some scrutiny, some thought, and to determine what aspects of this somewhat controversial model work, and what aspects don’t. Well, it isn’t strange to me. Actually, when I consider all the elements of such a model (drawn from my fifteen years working within such programs), I try to imagine how a truly comprehensive research study might control for all factors. Therefore, it’s not surprising to me that the consumer of services is left reading research platitudes that beg a plethora of further questions.

            The efficacy of the Therapeutic Community model is one of several subjects I tackle in my book, Working Through Rehab: An Inside Look at Adolescent Drug Treatment. For those unfamiliar with the TC model, it is described by one notable researcher as the following: a total milieu treatment (as in residential) that promotes positive peer culture and socialization, with confrontation as a staple technique of the TC approach. How does that sound? If it sounds good so far, then okay. But if you’re reading from the point of view of somehow who might soon be living in a TC, or from the POV of a parent wondering whether to place your son or daughter in a TC, you’ll likely want to know more. You might take a look at literature on TCs that came out of Australia in 2010, though researchers Foster, Nathan, Ferry are similarly cautious about what is truly effective in therapeutic communities. Alternatively, you might want to tour such a place, take a moment to sit in one of its dorm-style bedrooms, and take in the atmosphere, the buzz. I remember the first time I toured a TC as a would-be employee. It was Thunder Road near downtown Oakland, and it was the mid-nineties. I took in the harsh noise of the unit that first day, as well as its tense silences. The atmosphere was one of anxiety, the restlessness of kids addicted to drugs, risk taking in general; the barely suppressed rage borne of thwarted freedoms and deeply-rooted yet thinly acknowledged pain. Through my book, I give readers a first-hand feel of how a typical TC operates. I’ll sit you upon its time-out devices, the bench, and have you gaze into its affirmation mirrors. I’ll give you a pair of hospital scrubs and strip you of your clothes and other belongings. Before long you’ll be sitting in confrontation group, or in something called contract breaking. Later, you’ll be doing some chores to keep you and your living environment both literally and figuratively clean. Then you’ll go to a 12-step meeting, and after that, maybe a family therapy session. You’ll learn that these norms, methods, and that the principles that underlie them follow a rigorous structure, and have a long pedigree.

            If you read studies about treatment models, you’ll likely come across terms like “completion rates” or “retention”. Within the literature pertaining to efficacy of programs, concepts like completion or retention are deemed tantamount to successful engagement of patients. If you complete a treatment of, say, 4-6 weeks (or longer), versus dropping out of treatment, then the treatment episode is implicitly effective, and a program looking to promote its services might refer to completion rates as indicators of success. Alternatively, programs might refer to studies (across programs) that demonstrate the efficacy of TCs in reducing substance use, though you might wonder about the methods of research. For example, if a person is said to be clean from substances post-treatment, how exactly is this determined? Is it through mandated submission to urinalysis testing? Or, are questionnaires being used: self-report essentially, from adolescents or their parental co-participants? Also, how long after treatment are the determinations being made? Are questionnaires being administered within 72 hours of discharge? Ninety days? Six months? I recall conducting post-discharge surveys for three different programs over the course of my fifteen years. The average length of time passed before conducting the surveys was about six weeks.

            Imagine your information is used for such a study (not that your name would be revealed). Think what it would be like for you if your treatment program was deemed successful because people like you completed the required number of days, or because you volunteered that you were still clean after eighty nine days. And even if that’s true, what if you relapsed on day ninety two? A program might benefit from the statistics, but what consolation would this be to those who slip back into old habits, and perhaps worsen from a previous baseline of addictive behavior? Many who go through drug treatment do so on multiple occasions, at great personal as well as societal cost. In future articles, I will address the problem of repeat customers in treatment, and argue for practices that aim for long-term change versus band-aid solutions and a low-bar, common denominator of treatment success. Long term, as in sustained change is what the consumer of drug treatment wants, after all. And it will take hard work, not to mention patience if treatment programs are to meet these standards. Studies of treatment efficacy that track change over time are few and—of course—far between. Exhibiting a quality that is perceived in most addicts, consumers of drug treatment research follow an ironic yet understandably urgent pursuit. They want the immediate gratification of fresh information, the latest studies. They cannot wait.


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