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How Long Should Addiction Treatment Last to Be Effective?

What kind of treatment program is best to help you overcome an addiction issue? That’s a question that only you can answer.

After all, you know the contours of your addiction better than anyone else. You already know about the attempts you’ve made in the past and how well they worked for you.

But if you ask your insurance company to tell you more about the program you should use, you might be told that the most effective programs last for about 30 days. You might also hear that these 30-day programs are the only forms of treatment that your insurance company will pay for.

Are programs that last 30 days right for everyone? Experts in addiction treatment care aren’t so sure. In fact, some believe programs that last for just 30 days come with very real risks that can lead to relapse.

If you are considering a 30-day program, read on to find out how these programs work and learn more about whether or not they are right for you.

The History of 30-Day Programs

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) would likely classify a 30-day program as a “short-term residential treatment program.”

People who enroll in programs like this leave their homes behind for a short time as they focus on the fundamentals of addiction recovery. They are protected from the stresses of home and habit while they are enrolled, but after about a month, that program is considered complete.

It is a little unusual for a medical community to treat a condition with a strict time limit like this. Often, medical professionals design programs that vary in length, depending on how well the person heals.

For example, someone admitted to the hospital with flu-related complications, including a high fever and difficulty breathing, would need to stay in the hospital until those symptoms cleared up. A young and healthy person might need only a few days to recover, but an older person with a weakened immune system and other health challenges might need longer.

No medical professional would claim that all flu complications can be cured with a program lasting for a specific period. The care that is required is tailored to the patient.

Addiction programs are different. According to National Public Radio (NPR), that difference stems from the origins of the addiction treatment industry. Addiction treatment programs initially were designed to help people overcome alcoholism, and typically, people became stable in about 30 days, says an expert quoted by NPR.

In time, this model became widely known, and insurance companies began funding treatment programs that followed this model. As a result, more programs began to use the 30-day rule. Now, many of them do.

What’s Included in 30-Day Programs? 

A program like this is designed to be your first stop on a treatment journey. That means your detoxification process may be included in 30-day programs. During detoxification, your body can process all of the remaining drugs in your system, and your body has time to adjust to a lack of drugs.

While programs can include a bit of variability, most offer a few basic features. According to Psychology Today, those features include group therapy sessions and medication management.

Programs may also include alternative therapies such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Equine-assisted therapy
  • Massage
  • Yoga

When you enroll in a program like this, you are expected to work on your addiction all day, every day. That means you typically do not leave the facility to go to work or socialize with friends. You might have visits with your family, but some program administrators ask people to connect only with others in the program during the early part of recovery.

At the end of this kind of program, you might be encouraged to take advantage of an aftercare program. That could mean going to support group meetings in the Alcoholics Anonymous model so that you can meet and learn from others in recovery. You might also be encouraged to move into a sober living community so that you can be surrounded by others in recovery rather than by a community that still uses drugs.

These aftercare steps can certainly be helpful, but most are not run by mental health professionals. Instead, they are programs that rely on the power of peers.

For some people, that may not be enough support in the early stage of recovery when the urge to relapse can be strong.

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Measuring Effectiveness Is Difficult but Possible 

To compare how well a short-term program works when compared to another form of treatment, you might be tempted to look at relapse rates. Those scores can tell you how often someone went back to using drugs after the treatment program was complete.

On the surface, that seems like a good indication of whether the program worked or not. Unfortunately, relapse rates don’t tell the whole story.

As NIDA explains, addiction is a chronic condition that is characterized by multiple relapses. The consistent use of drugs alters brain cells in such a way that it becomes difficult for people to curb their impulses and make good decisions. The portions of the brain that handle these executive functions have been damaged, and it can take time to reverse that damage.

While the damage persists, it can be quite difficult for people to overcome the urge to return to drug use. Damage can linger, and that can prompt a relapse months or years after treatment is complete.

Since the brain needs time to heal, it is vital for addiction treatment programs to last for an adequate period. According to NIDA, programs that last for 90 days or less are of limited effectiveness in addressing addiction. They simply do not last long enough to help new habits take hold and brain cells to heal.

A doctor holding a clipboard with an addiction therapy plan on it

In addition, according to an expert blog posted by Psych Central, the inclusion of detoxification in programs like this is troublesome. Some types of drugs persist within the body for a very long time, and as a result, detoxification programs for these drugs also take a long time.

Someone who enrolls in a detox program for benzodiazepines, for example, may not have fully progressed through detox when 30 days is complete. A person like this still has much work to do, but the program might be over before the next phase of healing begins.

People moving into recovery need to develop a new identity as someone who lives a sober life. As research published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors makes clear, people who do begin to identify with this new persona are more likely to stay sober than those who do not make this identity switch.

A new identity helps them to affiliate with like-minded, sober people. That can help protect them from temptation and poor habits. If forging this identity takes time, it is reasonable to expect people to stay in rehab longer for it to take hold. It’s not work that is likely done in just 30 days.

Other Treatment Options

If a 30-day program isn’t enough, what is a better option? There are long-term residential treatment programs, although they are a little rare, says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In a program like this, you don’t move into a treatment program for a month. Instead, you move into a program for an extended period, depending on your addiction history, your health, and your drug of choice. The program’s length and the elements included in the program are tailored to help you achieve your recovery goals. 

If a residential program like this isn’t the right fit for you, there are partial hospitalization programs or intensive outpatient programs. These options allow you to continue to live at home while you work on your addiction, but you will devote the majority of your waking hours to treatment.

You might need to participate in programming every day in the treatment center for hours at a time in the early stages of healing. As you make improvements, you might be able to step back to working with your team for just a few hours a few days per week. A program like this is still designed just for you and your addiction, but it offers more flexibility than a standard residential program.

Sad woman considering 30-day addiction treatment

These options give your brain a longer time to heal, and they give you a better opportunity to develop new habits and new thought patterns. But pay attention to fees. Your insurance company may refuse to cover the entire cost of your care. You might be required to fill out a significant amount of paperwork to prove that this is the level of care you really need to get better.

Which Program Is Right for You?

The length of the program that is right for you comes down to a range of factors. Once you enroll in addiction treatment, you’ll meet with your treatment adviser and other professionals to determine the type of program that is right for you.

For some people, a 30-day inpatient stay might be enough to set the foundation for recovery. They might transition to less frequent outpatient sessions after 30 days. Others may need a more extended form of care in residential treatment.


(January 2018). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved January 2019 from

(October 2016). How We Got Here: Treating Addiction in 28 Days. National Public Radio. Retrieved January 2019 from

(June 2011). Understanding Addiction Treatment Levels of Care. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 2019 from

(July 2018). The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved January 2019 from

(January 2018). How Long Does Drug Addiction Treatment Usually Last? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved January 2019 from

How Long is 'Long-Term' Drug Rehab? Psych Central. Retrieved January 2019 from

(2013). Group Membership and Social Identity in Addiction Recovery. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Retrieved January 2019 from

(June 2018). Treatments for Substance Use Disorders. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved January 2019 from

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