Guidelines for the Treatment of Substance Use Disorder


Guidelines (American Psychiatric Association)


The American Psychiatric Association is the association of US psychiatrists, as well as the largest and most authoritative in the world for the category. The APA works to promote improvement in the treatment of mental disorders, including substance use disorder, and this aim is pursued by promoting guidelines on case management and informed decision on the most effective treatment in light of current scientific evidence.

Research has shown that the use of pharmacotherapy for substance use disorders may be limited unless it is given in conjunction with psychotherapy (APA, 2010).


A. General Principles of Processing


1. Treatment Goals


A multimodal approach is usually required, as individuals with a substance use disorder are clinically and functionally heterogeneous. The main purpose of treatment includes motivating the patient to change and helping him develop, practice and internalize changes in attitudes and behaviors that tend to prevent relapse. Additional purposes of the intervention include:


  • Help the patient reduce substance use or achieve complete abstinence.

  • Abstinence is associated with the best long-term outcomes.

  • Many patients are unable or unwilling to achieve abstinence and just want to reduce usage to a controlled level.

  • Controlled use can lead to a decrease in associated disorders but is unrealistic for many patients and can dissuade them from working towards abstinence.

  • Help the patient reduce the frequency and severity of substance use episodes.


Improve psychological and social functioning.


Repair cracked relationships and improve family and interpersonal relationships that can foster an abstinent lifestyle.

Develop social and professional skills.


2. Assessment


Obtain information from the patient and, with their permission, from other sources (e.g. family, friends, current or former professionals, employers) as long as appropriate.

If necessary, depending on the clinical problem and the patient's motivation, conduct an assessment in several sessions.


Recognize that a group of people may have an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder (e.g., gay or bisexual people with nicotine addiction or patients with schizophrenia) or of having an undiagnosed substance use disorder (e.g., older people).


Include in the assessment what is listed in Table 1.


Consider using empirically validated substance use disorder screening tools for (e.g. CAGE [have you ever felt the need to cut down on drinking, have been annoyed [Annoyed] by others' criticism of your drink, have you ever felt guilty [Guilty] because you drink, have you ever needed a glass first thing in the morning to open your eyes( [Eye opener], the Alcohol Use Identification Test or the Drug Abuse Screening Test) such as help in identifying unrecognized substance use disorders.


Consider using qualitative or quantitative blood, breath, or urine screening tests to identify recent substance uses.


Evaluate whether or not the use of diagnostic tests are indicated for monitoring the presence or absence of pregnancy (in women of childbearing potential) or for general medical conditions common among people with a substance use disorder.


Table 1: what to include in the assessment


A detailed history of the patient's present and past including:


  • Types of substances used (including nicotine, caffeine and over-the-counter drugs) and possible use of different substances in combination;

  • Method of use, quantity, frequency, duration, method of administration and contexts of use of the substance (e.g., where, with whom);

  • Date and quantity of the last use;

  • Associated degree of intoxication, withdrawal and subjective effects of all substances used.

  • History of prior drug use treatments (e.g., setting, context, modality, duration, and adherence), efforts to discontinue use and results (e.g., duration of abstinence, subsequent substance use, reasons for relapse, level of social and occupational functioning achieved).


Degree of readiness for change, including:

  • Awareness of the substance as a problem,

  • Plans to finish using it,

  • Reasons for using the substance, including desired effects,

  • Obstacles to treatment and abstinence,

  • Expectations and preferences for the next treatment,

  • Effects on cognitive, psychological, behavioral, social, occupational and physiological functioning.

  • General medical and psychiatric history and mental status examination for

3. Family History of Substance Use or Psychiatric Disorders


Social history (including relationships with family and peers, financial and legal problems) and psychosocial support (including the influences of close friends or other family members in supporting or undermining past attempts at abstinence).


Educational and occupational history, including school or work adaptation and identification of high-risk occupation of substance use.


4. Formulation and Implementation of the Treatment


Develop and implement a strategy to achieve abstinence.

If abstinence is not the patient's goal, use a motivational approach to encourage abstinence in the future.

Use specific pharmacological and psychosocial interventions in the context of an organized treatment program that combines different modalities

Apply the principles of psychiatric management to coordinate the use of different clinics and modalities used in individual, group, family and self-help settings.

Customize the intervention plan based on personal needs and preferences.

Intensify monitoring of substance use and consider whether adjustments are needed during periods of high risk of relapse.

Consider including family members or support people as part of the intervention.

Consider recommending participation in self-help groups.


5. Pharmacological Treatment


For selected patients, the drugs can be used for the following purposes:

Treatment of intoxication states.

Decrease or eliminate withdrawal symptoms in order to reduce craving and the risk of relapse.

Substitute an agonist for the specific class of substances used (e.g., methadone or buprenorphine’s for opioids, nicotine replacement therapies for tobacco, benzodiazepines for alcohol).

Consider using other drugs that may also reduce withdrawal symptoms (e.g., clonidine for opioid withdrawal).

Reduce the strengthening effect of the substance of abuse.

Evaluate the use of drugs that block the subjective and physiological effect of subsequently administered substances (e.g., the opioid antagonist naltrexone to block the effect of opioids).


To promote abstinence and prevent relapses.


Evaluate the use of medications such as

Disulfiram, which can discourage alcohol use by the patient's awareness of the unpleasant interaction between the drug and the substance.

Naltrexone, which decreases the craving for alcohol likely through the effects on opioid receptors in mediating the strengthening effect of alcohol.

Acamprosate, which is thought to promote alcohol withdrawal by reducing nervous hyperexcitability.

Bupropion, which decreases the craving for nicotine and the need to smoke.

Treat co-existing psychiatric conditions

Address comorbid psychiatric disorders to improve adherence and treatment success for substance use disorder.


6. Psychosocial Treatment


Psychosocial treatments are an essential part of a comprehensive treatment program. Integrating or mixing psychosocial interventions can be helpful when patients show substance use alongside another psychiatric disorder. Depending on the type of specific substance use disorder being treated (see next sections), the availability of specific psychosocial treatment, and the patient's preferences, choose from the following interventions:


Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy (TCC)


Purpose of TCC:

  • Modify dysfunctional cognitive processes that lead to dysfunctional behaviors.

  • Intervening in the chain of events leads to the use of substances.

  • Help reduce chronic and acute craving.

  • Promote and enhance the development of effective social behaviors and skills.


Types of TCC:


Standard cognitive therapy - changing maladaptive thought patterns to reduce negative emotions and behaviors (e.g., substance use).

Social skill training - improve the person's ability to communicate effectively and meaningfully by listening to others, imagining the thoughts and emotions of others, monitoring their non-verbal communication, adapting to circumstances to maintain relationships and being assertive.

Relapse prevention - uses cognitive and behavioral techniques to help patients develop greater self-control and avoid relapse.


Therapy to Improve Motivation


Motivate the patient to change by empathically asking about the pros and cons of specific behavior and exploring the patient's goals and associated ambivalence.


Behavioral Therapies


Contingency management to enforce abstinence (e.g., with vouchers) or punish substance use (e.g., with notifications to the trial court, employer, or family members) as measured by monitoring random and supervised urine, saliva or hair follicles.

Community reinforcement provides the patient with natural and alternative reinforcements to abstinence through involvement in the social community (e.g., in the family, with peers).

Exposure to stimuli and relaxation techniques expose the patient to craving-inducing stimuli while preventing the use of substances to facilitate the extinction of a conditioned craving response.


Facilitation to 12 Steps


Promote abstinence by using a short, structured and supervised manualized intervention to improve patient motivation and facilitate participation in 12-step programs.


Psychodynamic and Interpersonal Therapies


They can facilitate withdrawal, especially when combined with other modalities of intervention (e.g., drug therapy and self-help groups).


Group Therapy


It can be supportive, therapeutic and educational.

Increase responsibility by giving the group the opportunity to respond to prodromal signs of relapse.


Family Therapy


Dysfunctional families are associated with poorer patient outcomes in the short and long term. Family therapy goals include:


  • Encourage the family to support the patient for withdrawal.

  • Obtain clinical information about the patient.

  • Maintain marital relations.

  • Acting on interpersonal and family interactions that lead to conflict or substance use.

  • Reinforce behaviors that can help prevent relapses and improve recovery expectations.


Self-help and 12-step Oriented Groups


  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step-oriented programs provide tools to help participants stay sober, including the 12-step, group identification, mutual help and sharing of experiences, strengths and hope with each other.

  • Encouraging participation in self-help groups can be an important addition to treatment for some but not all patients.

  • Refusal to participate does not indicate resistance to treatment in general.

  • Patients requiring psychoactive drugs (e.g., lithium or antidepressants) should be referred to groups that encourage these treatments.

  • Self-guided therapies that monitor alcohol and tobacco use may be useful for a general health care population but tend to be less useful for patients who come to specialized programs for the treatment of substance use disorders.




7. Clinical Aspects Influencing the Treatment


Consider whether the treatment plan needs to be modified based on the individual patient characteristics.

Show sensitivity to cultural differences and incorporate cultural beliefs about healing and recovery to improve outcomes within ethnic minorities.

Recognize that poly abuse is common and can complicate assessment and treatment.

Consider whether the treatment plan needs changes based on the coexistence of general medical conditions.

Consider the benefits and risks to individual patients when choosing medications to treat comorbid disorders.

Change your treatment plan for substance use disorder to address other comorbid psychiatric disorders as well.

  • Addressing the increased risk of suicide and aggressive behavior during an intoxication or abstinence period in individuals with comorbidities with other psychiatric disorders.

  • Incorporate the psychosocial therapies indicated together with the drug therapies for each disorder.

  • Consider whether the initial phase of treatment requires increased intensity when treating individuals suffering only from substance use disorder (e.g., early use of nicotine substitutes, supplemental use of nicotine patches with other replacement therapies or groups or individual behavioral therapy for smoking cessation).

  • Assess the potential effects that withdrawal may have on symptoms of comorbid psychiatric disorders when synchronizing treatment efforts.

  • Coping with insomnia, which is a common problem and can predict relapses although the evidence is limited, TCC or psychotropic drugs (e.g., trazodone or gabapentin) may be considered.

  • Address the factors most likely to affect patient adherence with comorbid disorders (e.g., concerns about drug interactions, cognitive impairment, poor motivation, or lack of social support).

  • Assess whether treatment can be made more effective through the integration of community-based assertiveness interventions, staged motivation models and recovery-oriented perspectives.

  • Encourage attending groups that follow the 12-step program and support appropriate use of psychotropic drugs.


Assess the possibility of pregnancy as part of the treatment planning process for women of childbearing age.

In the case of pregnant women, modify the treatment to maximize patient and fatal well-being.

Choose treatments for pregnant women based on an assessment of the risks and benefits of treatment for the fetus as well as for the patient.


B. Psychiatric Management


  • Motivate the patient to change.

  • Establish and maintain a therapeutic alliance.

  • Assess patient safety and clinical status.

  • Manage intoxication.

  • Manage abstinence.

  • Reduce the severity and sequelae of substance use disorders.

  • Develop and facilitate treatment adherence.

  • Use relapse prevention strategies.

  • Provide education.

  • Facilitate access to services and coordinate resources between mental health services, general medicine and social services.


Appendices on specific substances


C. Nicotine Addiction


Provide drug treatments for people who wish to quit smoking and have not succeeded without drugs or who prefer to use them.