What To Look For in a Residential Treatment Center

By Dr Sarah Zucker 10/04/16

A residential treatment center that's right for you should be able to answer all these questions affirmatively.

What To Look For in a Residential Treatment Center
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Once people with substance use concerns take the courageous step to enter residential treatment, they face a marathon of uncertainty. It's an inherently vulnerable time and everyone deserves adequate, ethical care. It can feel really overwhelming to wade through all of the information. With all of the factors to consider, patients have sometimes said they feel like they're learning a new language! Fortunately, The Fix wrote an article on this exact topic. It's a general overview to get you started if you're thinking of entering treatment. Building off of this piece, I've compiled a list of questions that a residential treatment center (RTC) should be able to answer affirmatively. These elements are critical to your success as a patient, and whatever treatment center you chose should include these key program components.

1. Do they use evidence-based approaches?

Evidence-based treatment means that an intervention or treatment has been researched and that the empirical evidence supports the notion that it is effective for a certain ailment. Simply put, it means the treatment is found to actually work. When entering treatment, you want your clinical team to know exactly why they’re doing what they are doing. Your recovery is too important to rely on guess work, experimental interventions, or complacent nostalgia for things that may or may not have worked in the past. I work at AToN Center (which I’ll reference  throughout this article), and we’re always researching, revising, updating, and investigating to make sure we’re ahead of the curve; your chosen treatment center should too. Ask if you will have a focused, unique treatment plan that addresses your substance use AND underlying mental health concerns. Your clinicians should be able to talk with you about this plan and adapt it in order to help you meet your goals. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness, EMDR, and exposure therapy are just some of the research-supported interventions we utilize. Incorporating less-researched elements into treatment can be fine, but the foundation of any solid rehabilitation program should be evidence-based approaches. 

2. Do they recognize you have a life outside of treatment while offering appropriate structure?

People who come to treatment centers have historically been treated like untrustworthy criminals who must be shut out from the outside world. This feeds into the belief that “addicts/alcoholics” are bad and should be treated with contempt instead of as patients who need treatment. This can be very shaming and feel punitive for no real reason. I’m so thankful many RTC’s are becoming more progressive. While AToN implements important structure to keep everyone safe, we do not irrationally limit people’s freedoms. We know many of our clients are professionals and parents, and they need to remain connected to their life outside of treatment. I cannot imagine the shock of not having any contact with your life for a month and then having to deal with everything once you complete treatment. That would be overwhelming for anyone! Your treatment center should encourage you to focus on treatment and keep helpful boundaries in place, but not punish or limit you unnecessarily. 

3. Do they include family members in treatment?

Research overwhelmingly supports including willing and supportive family members into treatment. NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) states that research suggests that family-based treatments are “highly efficacious.” Involving the family will look different for everyone, but family should not be an afterthought. Family systems operate with everyone playing their role, and if the person using substances is going to make changes, the family needs to be ready to adapt and work on their own ineffective behaviors. Whenever possible, AToN Center incorporates family into treatment via support sessions, updates, education, and by providing resources. This includes helping all parties set healthy and appropriate boundaries. 

4. Do they have a strong emphasis on discharge planning and life after treatment?

The importance of this element cannot be stressed enough. What good is treatment if you are kicked back out into the world with little or no preparation for what comes next? Your treatment center should focus on discharge planning from very early on in the treatment process. This means they should be helping you to create a plan that will work for your lifestyle, budget, needs, and most importantly, your recovery. The process of finding the right partial-hospitalization program, intensive outpatient program, sober living, sober coach, and community support meetings can be as daunting as picking the right treatment center. (And if you don’t know what any of those are, don’t fret! They should help you figure it out.) For example, we have people whose sole purpose is to connect with and locate these resources all over the country. We also facilitate a community for our alums. (We recently had an alumni barbecue and had a celebrity in recovery speak to our graduates.) Additionally, we have graduates speak to current residents every week so people can get a feel for life after treatment. We call all graduates weekly to check-in, have a weekly support meeting for graduates, and we make ourselves available to family members of graduates. (Can you tell I feel passionately about this topic?) Your treatment center should not stop caring about you once you leave… they should be in it with you for the long haul. The bottom line is that leaving the safety of treatment is hard and a quality program will be there to help you.

5. Do they make you feel safe, supported, cared for, and like an individual?

This is the “x-factor” of treatment… that ingredient you can’t put a price on or fully explain in words. Plainly put, your RTC should give you the warm and fuzzies. Of course you should feel safe and supported, but it should go beyond that. They should take what can be a dark and scary time and make it life-changing and special. Additionally, they should tailor your treatment to fit you, not change you to fit a rigid protocol. Addiction is pervasive and affects every aspect of life. It harms our thoughts, emotions, physical body, social connections, spirituality, and behaviors. Therefore, treatment centers should treat the whole person. Your RTC should sincerely honor a commitment to you as an individual. In addition to the daily therapeutic work you’ll do, it is helpful to have options like massage, yoga, an array of community support meetings, nutritional awareness, trauma treatment, personal training, meditation, acupuncture, hypnosis, expert medical support, and outings that help you prepare for fun in recovery. Be wary of anyone who lacks nuance and makes you feel like a number or profit margin. Your RTC should be about permanently changing lives for the better with integrity and passion.

In conclusion, these are some of the most important factors to consider when choosing a treatment center. I encourage you to visit, tour, ask an annoying amount of questions, and land somewhere you feel comfortable. I write this from the unique perspective of working at one of the best treatment centers. We can answer a resounding “YES” to all of the questions I posed. That’s why people find us from all over the world and can sense we’ve got something special. Do your due diligence and consider including us in your search – You’ll be glad you did.

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Dr. Sarah Zucker is a clinical psychologist on staff at the Aton Center in Encinatas, CA. She studied psychology and LGBT studies at UCLA for her undergraduate education, afterwhich she earned her doctorate from the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. Zucker has a passion for recovery, mindfulness, intersectionality, healing shame, and empowering people. She also loves animals (especially dogs), tennis, yoga, and meditation.

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