Why Family Engagement in Addiction Treatment Matters
By Greg Phillips, MBA
Senior Vice President, Residential Treatment Division
Pinnacle Treatment Center
No one grows up completely alone.
Each person becomes who they are in context. Everyone is part of a group of people who have a direct impact on their development. The behavior and actions of any member of the group affects the entire group. In turn, the shared norms of the group affect the behavior and actions of any individual member.
This is the fundamental logic behind Family Systems Theory, on which virtually all family involvement in addiction treatment is based, regardless of the treatment center or the level of care at which an individual participates.
Here’s a slightly different way of putting it:
- Each individual is part of a web of human relationships, which we call a family.
- Family dynamics have a foundational impact on individual development.
- Therefore, behaviors an individual develops are influenced by the family unit in which the individual grew up.
When we say family, we don’t necessarily mean the classic American nuclear family from the 1950s. The syllogism above applies to everyone, whether they grew up in a traditional household, a non-traditional household, in a state-run children’s home, or in foster care: each and every one of us developed as part of a group of people who had a direct impact on who we became. In addiction treatment, we call that group, for lack of a better term, the family. The impact may have been positive, it may have been negative, or it may have been somewhere in between.
Whatever the case, there’s no getting around it: the people surrounding us when we grew up – and the people surrounding us now – have a direct effect on who we are and how we think, feel, and behave.
Unless you were raised by wolves and now live as a hermit on a mountainside, this means you.
The Importance of Family Engagement
The concept that families are a critical piece of addiction treatment is based on decades of research and clinical data. It also makes perfect sense. Since no one lives in a vacuum, no aspect of their behavior develops in a vacuum, either.
To change – really change – a core behavior such as a substance use disorder or addiction, the context in which the user or addict lives needs to transform in such a way as to support forward growth. Families who participate in treatment have a better understanding of what their loved one is going through. They also begin to understand the role they may or may not have played in enabling or facilitating the addictive behavior.
When a family gets it, meaning they get that not only their loved one needs to make changes, but they probably need to make some changes, too, then the person in treatment has a much better chance at long-term recovery.
Evidence shows that when families are involved in the treatment process:
- Substance use decreases
- Relapse rates decrease
- Time in treatment increases
- Symptoms of co-occurring emotional issues such as depression and anxiety decrease
- Family relationships improve
- Family discord decreases
These are all things that everyone involved in the recovery process wants. That’s why, when it comes to treatment, family engagement is essential.
Family Involvement: You Choose, Your Choice
Most treatment centers involve the family to the extent the patient wants them involved. In some cases, unfortunately, there may be too much water under the bridge, and the participation of blood relatives is neither necessary nor helpful.
That’s why family engagement doesn’t have to mean parents, children, or siblings. It mean friends, significant others, coworkers, neighbors, bosses, or anyone involved enough in the life of the individual in treatment to know what’s going on and be in a position to offer positive input and make a difference.
If you’re in residential treatment, in particular, it’s crucial for your success that at least a few of the people in your life know what you’re going through, because they can support you when you return to life out in the world.
And if a family member or loved one is in treatment, it’s crucial for you to show up if asked. You can be an important piece of the treatment puzzle, and help your friend, sibling, child, or parent make the changes they need for sustainable, long-term recovery.