What Should I Look for When Seeking Help for Drug or Alcohol Abuse?

Rear view of young adult in jacket walking along grassy hills with sun above aheadThe journey toward recovery from an alcohol or drug issue is often long, and the path may be full of bumps. Finding the right type of treatment can be a key factor in your progress, however, and doing so may help your journey go more smoothly.

Dealing with a drug or alcohol issue is hard enough on its own. Getting help should not cause additional stress. Many different types of treatment can help people address substance abuse in addition to the mental health issues (depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and bipolar, among others) that often co-occur with them.

When choosing a care provider, you have many options. You might first consider seeking help from a professional who treats alcohol and drug issues as well as mental health concerns. Any qualified counselor can offer help and support, and it is certainly possible to find success with a behavioral health care provider. But it can be a good idea to take the time to review other options. Some people find they achieve the most successful treatment when working with a specialist who has dedicated their whole career to helping people recover from drug and alcohol abuse.

Whichever route you choose to take, below are some considerations to keep in mind as you search for the provider who is ideal for your (or your loved one’s) needs:

1. Advanced degree 

It’s important to make sure your therapist has an advanced degree. Look for a master’s degree with the letters MSW, MA, or MS or a doctoral degree such as PhD, PsyD, or MD. These degrees mean the provider has spent several years learning how to diagnose and treat alcohol and drug-related issues. They will have also completed at least two residency-type rotations where they spent time providing services under a supervisor and receiving feedback on their performance.

2. License

Check to make sure the provider has a current, state-issued license in a discipline such as counseling, social work, or therapy. In order to earn a license, the licensee must prove advanced education and at least two years’ worth of supervision from an experienced professional in the field. They must also pass an exam. In order to maintain the license, a provider must undergo ongoing education and adhere to a code of conduct that monitors standards of practice such as personal and professional competency, ethics, and paperwork.

3. Credentials

A provider who has addiction treatment credentials has gone above and beyond to demonstrate their expertise. Beyond earning an advanced degree and maintaining a license, they will have also undergone specialty training. While understanding what certain certifications mean can be tricky, since states often have different credentials, words to look for include: “certified,” “addiction,” “counselor,” and “treatment.”

4. Assessment

A comprehensive substance use and mental health evaluation is typically a key part of the process to determine what type of treatment is necessary. A good provider will spend a minimum of an hour with you, often up to two hours. The provider should, with your permission, talk with other people who are affected by or involved with your care, such as your spouse or partner, close family members, previous therapists, doctor, and so on. In addition to getting information about your use of mood-altering substances and mental health symptoms, the provider should also seek information about your medical, legal, academic, work, and family history as well as your goals for recovery and any previous treatment.

Ultimately, the best treatment is the one that helps you (or your loved one) succeed on their path to recovery, and what leads to success for someone else may not be ideal for you. If you are ready to start on your path, a compassionate and qualified professional can help you take the first steps in determining what is right for you. 

Quality programs will also administer a psychological assessment tool to corroborate their professional/clinical opinion. Examples of these assessments include the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory, Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, and the Drug Abuse Screening Test.

5. Group therapy

Good treatment often includes a combination of individual therapy and group therapy. It’s a good idea to check with the provider or facility to see how many people are in their typical group—the ideal therapy group has about five to eight people, with two group leaders. You will also want to ask if the group is open (members can come in at varying points of their treatment) or closed (all members start and end within the same time frame). In addition, finding out if the group is more didactic- (educational) or process- (guided discussion) oriented can help inform your decision. Each of these groups have their specific advantages, and reviewing these can help you decide which type of group will best suit your unique needs.

6. On-site drug and alcohol testing

It’s generally advised to seek drug and alcohol treatment from a center that offers drug and alcohol testing. If a treatment provider does not offer on-site, observed drug and alcohol testing, they are not a true substance abuse treatment facility. You are entitled to see the results of the specimen you are providing. Though some facilities may unethically overuse urine drug screening to increase profits, screening is a good way to increase accountability and earn back trust from loved ones. That being said, a single positive (“dirty”) result should not mean a person has “failed” or should be discharged from treatment. If being substance-free were easy, no one would need therapy or assistance with recovery.

7. Individualized treatment

Problems with substances occur on a spectrum, from no problem to mild, moderate, and severe. Thus, treatment must also occur on a spectrum. In severe cases, a residential stay at a facility following a detoxification period is often advised, but more often than not, treatment will take place in an outpatient office setting.

Mutual support meetings have long been recommended to those struggling with addiction. Although 12-step programs offer structure, support, and accountability, they are not the same as therapy. Many people find them to be a component of successful recovery, but they are not appropriate for every person. Your therapist can help you determine if you are likely to benefit from meetings, and they can also help you locate and process your experiences, if you do attend.

8. Network of referrals 

An experienced addiction treatment counselor will have access to a variety of resources. If they believe addiction has progressed to the point where a person is likely to benefit from detoxification away from home in order to become stabilized, they should be able to provide a list of inpatient and residential facilities. A good provider will also know of sober houses and be able to provide referrals to family and couples therapists, as a person’s entire family can be affected by substance use and addiction.

The provider should also have a relationship with a psychiatrist who has training in dual diagnosis treatment (both mental health and substance use issues). That doctor should be willing to collaborate with the treatment team. Psychiatrists can also prescribe medications to assist with withdrawals and cravings, as well as any mental health symptoms that are affecting activities of daily living.

After reading this article, you may have a better understanding of why group practices or facilities offering comprehensive treatment are often recommended as the ideal treatment for alcohol and drug issues. Your journey to recovery requires not only professional expertise, but the combination of many resources. A solo practitioner, however skilled, may simply not have the resources necessary.

Ultimately, the best treatment is the one that helps you (or your loved one) succeed on their path to recovery, and what leads to success for someone else may not be ideal for you. If you are ready to start on your path, a compassionate counselor can help you take the first steps in determining what is right for you.


  1. Find your way to alcohol treatment. (n.d.). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved from https://alcoholtreatment.niaaa.nih.gov
  2. Screening and assessment tools. (n.d.). American Society of Addiction Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/education/live-online-cme/fundamentals-of-addiction-medicine/additional-resources/screening-assessment-for-substance-use-disorders/screening-assessment-tools
  3. Treatment approaches for drug addiction. (2018, January 17). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-approaches-drug-addiction

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