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A therapeutic community (TC) helps individuals recover from drug abuse and addiction. They have existed for about 40 years. In general, TCs are drug-free residential settings that use a hierarchical model with treatment stages that reflect increased levels of personal and social responsibility. Peer influence, mediated through a variety of group processes, is used to help individuals learn and assimilate social norms and develop more effective social skills.
Therapeutic communities differ from other treatment approaches principally in their use of the community, comprising treatment staff and those in recovery, as key agents of change. This approach is often referred to as "community as method." TC members interact in structured and unstructured ways to influence attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors associated with drug use.
Many individuals admitted to TCs have a history of social functioning, education/vocational skills, and positive community and family ties that have been eroded by their substance abuse. For them, recovery involves rehabilitation -- relearning or re-establishing healthy functioning, skills, and values as well as regaining physical and emotional health. Other TC residents have never acquired functional life-styles. For these people, the therapeutic community is usually their first exposure to orderly living. Recovery for them involves habilitation -- learning for the first time the behavioral skills, attitudes, and values associated with socialized living.
In addition to the importance of the community as a primary agent of change, a second fundamental TC principle is "self-help." Self-help implies that the individuals in treatment are the main contributors to the change process. "Mutual self-help" means that individuals also assume partial responsibility for the recovery of their peers -- an important aspect of an individual's own treatment.
For three decades, NIDA has conducted several large studies to advance scientific knowledge of the outcomes of drug abuse treatment as typically delivered in the United States. These studies collected baseline data from over 65,000 individuals admitted to publicly funded treatment agencies. They included a sample of therapeutic community programs and other types of programs (i.e., methadone maintenance, out-patient drug-free, short-term inpatient, and detoxification programs). Data were collected at admission, during treatment, and in a series of follow ups that focused on outcomes that occurred 12 months and longer after treatment.
These studies found that participation in a therapeutic community was associated with several positive outcomes. For example, the Drug Abuse Treatment Outcome Study (DATOS), the most recent long-term study of drug treatment outcomes, showed that those who successfully completed treatment in a TC had lower levels of cocaine, heroin, and alcohol use; criminal behavior; unemployment; and indicators of depression than they had before treatment.
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