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Drug Relapse

Drug relapse is a frustrating problem for many trying to recover from drug or alcohol problems. Those who have problems with drugs or alcohol find themselves on a perpetual roller coaster that involves periods of abstinence, reduction of use, and relapse. Often times this is due to external factors such as the availability of drugs and societal pressures.

During the 1950's, it was often asserted that few individuals ever recovered from addiction. Then, in the 196O's, Winick (1962, 1964) produced data suggesting that approximately two-thirds of narcotic addicts mature out of their addiction in their thirties. Subsequent long-term follow-up studies have pointed to a truth somewhere between these two extremes of pessimism and optimism.

Drug Relapse is a central aspect of the concept of "drug addiction." The inability to stop drug use is what most people have in mind when they say someone is "addicted" to drugs. Many achieve abstinence from drug use through a variety of different treatment strategies. Unfortunately, follow-up studies have found relapse rates to be much higher than expected. Most drug addicts relapse repeatedly over their lifetime, even after substantial periods of abstinence. Consequently, many theorists now regard the tendency to relapse as one of the defining characteristics of addiction.

Despite the conceptual importance of relapse and the great economic/human cost from cycles of repeated treatment and re-addiction, relatively few researchers have studied the causes of relapse as distinct from the causes of treatment failure. Most field studies of relapse to date have focused on measuring the frequency of relapse or its timing (e.g., O’Donnell 1965; Hunt and Bespalec 1974). A much smaller number of empirical studies have sought to discover the predictors and causes of relapse.

There is also abundant data showing that drug abusers commonly experience multiple treatments. Given these and related findings, a major problem confronting treatment is the bringing about and maintaining positive behavioral change, thus preventing relapse.