Going through medication-assisted treatment for substance abuse can be challenging for anyone. Watching a loved one go through it may even be more challenging. Here's some vital background information about this form of addiction treatment, as well as eight key tips about how to support a loved one in this type of program.
What is medication assisted treatment?
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is the utilization of medication concurrent with other therapies to provide a pathway to recovery for an individual with an alcohol and/or opioid use disorder,” Zach Ludwig, LPC-S, NCC, VP of Clinical Services & Accreditation at Bradford Health Services, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, MAT provides a “whole patient” approach to the treatment of people struggling with substance use disorders. It is a customized program comprising of FDA-approved medicines and behavior therapies that help resolve issues of most patients.
“Not every individual may be appropriate for MAT,” Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
“Prior to initiating MAT, a medical professional will do a thorough evaluation to assess if you are a candidate for MAT. Important considerations include but are not limited to underlying physical health conditions, history of medication compliance, history of past treatment episodes, and level of motivation to change and comply with treatment recommendations,” Sternlicht says.
How does medication-assisted treatment work?
“Medication assisted treatment works by helping to sustain recovery in substance abusers,” Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
“The medications used in MAT are designed to either reduce withdrawal symptoms, decrease cravings, block the effects of the substance, or cause an adverse physical reaction to the individual if the substance is ingested,” Sternlicht says.
“Most MAT medications are taken daily either in pill form, liquid form or as a sublingual film. Some common MAT treatments for opioids include buprenorphine (commonly prescribed as Suboxone which also contains Naloxone), methadone, and Vivitrol (naltrexone). Common MAT treatments for alcohol include Antabuse (Disulfiram), Vivitrol (Naltrexone), and Campral (Acamprosate),” Sternlicht explains.
“There is no minimum or maximum recommended duration for MAT. MAT is always prescribed on a case by cases basis, and as such some individuals may require medication for a matter of days, weeks or months while others may require medication indefinitely,” Sternlicht adds.
“It has been proven to be clinically effective to reduce the need of inpatient hospitalization for detox, improve patient survival, and decrease illegal drug use and relapse,” Lagoy says.
It's also highly likely that your loved one will be enrolled in one or more types of psychological and/or behavioral therapy as a part of their MAT program. You may see that they have a regular schedule of meetings, which could include individual and/or group sessions.
So, how do you help support a loved one who is undergoing this form of treatment? Read on for 8 tips.
1. Go with them to appointments/sessions.
People need to feel supported when going through a treatment program, so showing your support by being with them can have a huge effect.
“The little things count. Encourage them and show support in any way you can,” Brian N. Talleur, MD and Chief Medical Officer at Aegis Treatment Centers, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
“If a loved one asks if you'd like to attend a Doctor's appointment or family educational group session, do your best to go if you feel comfortable,” Talleur says.
A family educational group session is an example of a group where people in similar circumstances come together to support each other on their recovery journey.
“Many medication-assisted recovery programs offer more than just medication,” Bill Davis, Director of Recovery Support Services at CleanSlate Centers, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
“They can provide counseling, case management, and Certified Recovery Specialist services to help connect people with programs and community resources. The medication is just a small piece for the recovery of a whole person,” Davis says.
2. Be patient.
Recovering from substance or alcohol use disorder is a long process, and your patience is critical in your loved one’s success.
“It takes time to see a change in someone's behavior. They may feel better inside, but it might not be obvious at first,” Talleur says.
You may need this patience due to seemingly slow progress or because your loved one has relapsed during their medication-assisted treatment.
Showing your loved one that you are there to support them through any setbacks will increase the chance they continue and complete their treatment.
3. Learn more about the process.
“Educating yourself is an often-overlooked form of support. There is plenty of information out there on medication-assisted recovery and addiction as a whole. Find credible resources (.gov, .edu, .org websites, peer-reviewed articles, etc.) and find out more for yourself,” Davis says.
“Learn about addiction, recovery and medication-assisted treatments. While it is not your job to become an expert, it will be beneficial to have a basic understanding of addiction and the role of MAT and counseling during the recovery process,” Sternlicht says.
“Learning about addiction and MAT will also help to reduce the stigma you may have about addiction that may be contributing to a negative impact on your loved one. For example, many hold the misconception that MAT is simply replacing one substance for another. MAT is a safe and effective pathway to recovery,” Sternlicht adds.
4. Show them you care.
“Check-in on your loved one and actively listen. Active listening demonstrates to them that you are engaged and understanding what they are saying and how they are feeling,” Sternlicht says.
“Encourage them, support them, and ask how you can help. It’s important to let your loved one know that you are there for them.”
5. Create a healthy environment.
A calm and peaceful environment at home can go a long way in helping your loved one stick to their treatment process.
“Reduce friction and unnecessary arguments. Family stress can contribute to a drug or alcohol relapse, and/or exacerbate underlying mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Do your part to develop healthy communication and open dialogue in order to help facilitate constructive support,” Sternlicht says.
Also, “reduce environmental triggers such as by keeping alcohol and narcotics out of the house and any prescribed medications in a safe and secure location.” Sternlicht adds.
6. Do not judge.
Above everything—you cannot think negatively of your loved one or judge them as they go through medication-assisted treatment.
“Don’t look at medication-assisted recovery as ‘Just switching from one drug to another.’ While there is a small bit of truth to this, the person is not ‘switching’ but rather choosing to take a safer and healthier alternative,” Davis says.
Any negative thinking/judgment can make you start to distance yourself from your loved one when they need you the most. Keeping close with family is important to maintaining overall health. Emotional, mental, and physical health can all be affected if you do not stay close to your loved one, especially in a time of need like the medication-assisted treatment process.
7. Take care of yourself too.
“Addiction doesn't just affect the individual, it causes everyone around the addict to develop unhealthy behaviors and coping mechanisms,” Deena Manion, PsyD, LCSW, Executive Director and Chief Clinical Officer at Westwind Recovery in Los Angeles, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
“Putting the addict’s needs before your own can lead to a lack of self-care and cause more stress on yourself which can increase illness and sometimes depression and anxiety. When a loved one is in treatment it is vital that the family and support system also receive guidance and therapy for themselves.” Manion says.
“Engage in self-care such as through proper nutrition, exercise, sleep, routine, and hobbies. Engaging in such practices will not only help you feel good, but will also model recovery related behaviors to your loved one to follow,” Sternlicht says.
8. Be prepared for setbacks.
“The last tip for a loved one is to not only be prepared for, but expect lapses,” Daniel Hochman, MD, a Psychiatrist and Founder of SelfRecovery.org, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Give some grace for setbacks in the treatment, and know that the MAT team is prepared and equipped to deal with that. Whether that means more frequent appointments or adding therapy, clinics are prepared.”
“It’s important not to pressure a loved one into full abstinence, especially if they are motivated and compliant with MAT. The last thing you want is for them to feel rushed to “progress”, only to take a hard slide backwards soon after,” Hochman says.
“Learn the signs of relapse including red flags to look out for that one might be headed towards a relapse, as well as signs and symptoms that one is under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Although relapses can still occur when under MAT, early intervention will always be important in helping your loved one get back on track,” Sternlicht says.
Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.
If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.