Addicts Never Really Graduate

Over past decades, graduation ceremonies have become a prominent, long-standing, traditional centerpiece of substance abuse treatment programs and settings. Graduations provide clients with a platform to look back at their time in treatment, consider the things they will take away from that experience and what they will leave behind. However, do addicts ever graduate and recover from addiction?

Graduation ceremonies can incorrectly redefine clients’ understanding of the nature and dynamics of addiction. The concept of “graduating” treatment can encourage clients to believe that they have graduated from treatment intervention as well as long-term recovery management, which only adds to the confusion around the meanings of recovery, treatment, abstinence, and sobriety. Blurring the distinction between these terms similarly affects the distinction between a client who has worked diligently on building a strong personal recovery program and a client who is disinterested in doing treatment or only going through the motions.

The concept of graduation makes the transition out of treatment appear as the completion of substance use recovery; despite the accepted wisdom that recovery is a lifelong process from which one never truly “graduates.”  As 64 percent of Americans entering addiction treatment have attended treatment previously, many health care professionals have questioned the significance of addiction graduation ceremonies. For some clients, the unintended negative consequence is that they focus on “doing their time” in the program rather than “doing treatment.”

A graduation certificate has no value other than verification of being exposed to treatment and its impact beyond graduation is debatable. Treatment completion ceremonies are supposed to strengthen a client’s commitment to personal recovery, but there is scant data on long-term post treatment, quality-of-life indicators, to back up the claim that “graduates” have better long-term outcomes than non-graduates do.

Changing and rebranding graduation ceremonies as a “transition day” centered on sharing plans and discussing future stages of recovery is an alternative. Avoiding misconceptions about recovery is essential. A client’s intimate support system, a network of family, friends, and sponsor, can all share and help cement the bonds to transition to a healthier life without drugs or alcohol.