Understanding evidence-based therapies in addiction counseling

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Written By Berry Mathew

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 20 million Americans were diagnosed with substance abuse disorders in 2021. 

Drug addiction is the biggest public health crisis in the United States. As a clinical mental health or school counselor, you will encounter it often, and it is your responsibility to provide the best therapies available today. 

As the name suggests, evidence-based therapies are those that are shown to be effective through empirical trials. In other words, they have been used in the real world and proven to work when properly administered and supervised. 

Many addiction treatment facilities and rehab centers advertise that they use evidence-based therapies. If you plan to become a counselor or a social worker, it is important to be familiar with these therapies, how they work, and what results can be expected. 

Some universities now offer courses on evidence-based therapies. You can take a chemical dependencey counseling certificate program to learn the skills necessary to help those with addiction issues. 

This course is specially designed for practitioners who work with addicts or at-risk groups. You learn the theories of addiction, the dynamics of group therapy within different populations, how to assess and treat dysfunctional relationships, and addiction prevention and intervention. 

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What are the basics of evidence-based therapies?

For a therapy to be considered evidence-based, it needs to have certain qualities:

  • It has been scientifically researched and published in a peer review journal.
  • The method needs to provide the desired outcomes for addiction treatment.
  • It should be repeatable. This means that it should work for diverse populations without much alteration. 
  • It should provide the same result when used in different environments. 
  • The method should be measurable – how well does the treatment work if you stick to the given protocol?

Before a counselor can begin to use this particular form of treatment, they must ensure that it meets three criteria:

  • There should be literature supporting the use of evidence-based treatments for the particular problem they are trying to alleviate.
  • The clinician must be properly trained and qualified to use the specific treatment they have in mind. 
  • The treatment must line up with the values and culture of the patient. It should also be their preference. 

Why opt for evidence-based therapies to treat addiction?

Many practitioners choose evidence-based treatments because they have been tested and proven to work in a scientific setting. Scientific research is the most reliable way to test therapies. It can prove whether or not a treatment is safe and measure whether it provides desired results. 

There are additional benefits to these therapies:

  • They are safe and ethical for all concerned – this approach eliminates the need for personal opinion and experimentation. The instructions are printed for the counselor to follow. It eliminates bias and subjectivity. 
  • Science has shown that people tend to overcome addiction issues faster with these treatments. They improve quality of life in the short term, and patients report feeling better in a relatively short time. 
  • It is a cost-effective way to treat addiction – these treatments tend to pay for themselves. They don’t need much by way of medical costs, and they increase productivity and life satisfaction. 
  • These therapies are useful for treating other disorders – counselors don’t restrict evidence-based treatment to addiction. Patients who suffer from anxiety, PTSD, depression, and even phobias also benefit from these therapies. 
  • Counselors can create customized treatments – patients can participate in their treatment. They discuss their symptoms and life circumstances with the counselor, who then designs a treatment program to deal with those particular issues. 

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Common examples of evidence-based therapies

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT

CBT is highly effective in treating different mental health problems, and it is considered one of the best evidence-based therapies for treating addiction. 

It helps people unlearn bad habits, eliminates negative thinking, and teaches new and better behaviors that promote good mental and physical health. 

  • Interpersonal therapy

This is commonly used to treat depression, which often leads to addiction problems. For many, addictive behavior is rooted in depressive feelings, and if they can deal with those feelings they can control their addictive tendencies. 

This treatment aims to help patients improve interpersonal relationships to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. 

  • Behavioral activation

This is all about activating meaningful experiences. The counselor emphasizes behaviors that promote positive thoughts. It helps reduce anxiety and stress and reduces dependency on drugs. 

  • Dialectical behavior therapy

This is considered a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, and it focuses on mindfulness and tolerance to distress. Properly administered, it can help reduce anxiety and depression and improve relationships with others. Originally developed for sufferers of borderline personality disorder, it has proved effective in treating addiction. 

  • Motivational interviewing

This is interviewing with an emphasis on the language of change. It strengthens the motivation to achieve stated goals. For addicts, for example, the counselor will ask a client to talk about the reason why they would like to change their behavior and what they think would help them achieve their goals. 

  • Brief therapy

Here, the patient is encouraged to look at their present and future circumstances rather than focusing on their past. The counselor asks the patient to imagine what the future will be like and determines what resources and support are needed to make changes. It is their job to help the patient achieve their goals (as related to addiction). 

  • Contingency management

This method uses positive reinforcement to change behavior. The counselor rewards positive outcomes. The rewards don’t have to be very big. If someone is able to control addictive urges for a week, for example, they receive a ticket to a movie they want to see. 

  • Matrix Model

This form of therapy was initially developed to deal with addiction to stimulants, like cocaine and meth. It combines several types of CBT treatments. The counselor coaches the patient through a detailed treatment manual and also takes them through group therapy. Patients are screen-tested periodically to ensure they are on track. 

  • Family Behavior Therapy

This form of evidence-based therapy addresses substance abuse and the problems it may be causing within the family. The patient signs a contract to make changes to their behavior and actions by a certain date, and together with the counselor, they can review progress, acknowledge successes, and address challenges. 

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Does evidence-based therapy use medications?

Yes; in some circumstances, the best results are achieved by combining therapies and medication. Those who are dealing with alcoholism, for example, or opioid addiction need certain prescriptions to deal with the physiological side effects of their dependency. 

The medications may be used to induce nausea if one drinks or takes drugs, or they may prevent painful withdrawal symptoms. Some prevent relapses while others eliminate cravings. 

As a social worker, you are not authorized to write prescriptions. You will refer your clients to psychiatrists, psychotherapists or other licensed specialists who can prescribe medications. 

However, it is part of your job to follow up and make sure that your client is taking the medication as prescribed. 

How does a Chemical Dependency Certificate fit in with my social work degree?

You will cover addiction issues in some of your social work courses, especially if you want to become a clinical social worker. However, if you want to get in-depth knowledge, a chemical dependency certificate is the way to go. 

Not only do you learn the different therapies for helping overcome addiction, you also learn how to recognize whether they are working, and how to combine and customize treatments for clients with varying backgrounds. 

This certificate complements your social work degree and opens you up to a variety of employers. Because the course itself doesn’t take very long and isn’t very demanding, you can enroll in it at the same time as your degree. 

When you choose a college, think about whether you want to study online or on campus. Online classes have become rather popular because they tend to be shorter and more flexible. 

You can learn from anywhere and complete the course at your own pace. This is especially important for mature students who already have jobs, families, or both. 

Check for accreditation. It means that a university has met certain standards required by the government, and the degrees they offer are recognized by employers. 

Keep in mind that although many American students are opting for online degrees, the dropout rate is rather high. Many enroll without taking into account the time requirements, discipline, and personal commitment needed to finish a course. 


Evidence-based treatments for addiction have a high success rate. Understanding what they are and how they work is a good way to give your career a boost; it opens up opportunities with different employers. 

You can learn these therapies by studying for a chemical dependency certificate in an accredited institution. The course is available online so you can study and work at the same time.