Offering Rewards Can Help Treat Alcohol Abuse, Study Finds

The results of a new study have revealed that reward-based therapy can be effective at treating alcohol abuse. These findings are an important development in helping those living with what is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

Researchers working at Washington State University conducted a study on participants in the Seattle area living with serious mental illness. This segment of the population is estimated to have a much shorter lifespan than the general population, approximately 20-25 years less than the average person’s life expectancy.

The reward-based intervention used in the study involved providing prizes for attendance at addiction treatment sessions. Participants also received prizes for testing “negative” on urine tests for alcohol use.

The study involved 79 outpatients receiving treatment at a local community mental health center. Half of them received a 12-week course of treatment that included the rewards intervention, and the other half were assigned to a control group who received rewards regardless of whether they attended treatment sessions or whether they had “clean” drug tests.

Those in the reward group were three times more likely to test positive for alcohol use than the participants in the control group. The lower rates of alcohol use continued during the three-month follow-up period after the study.

The prizes used in the study varied. They ranged from small items, such as soap and shampoo, to clothing and $20.00 jewelry, to gift cards, cooking supplies, microwaves, $100.00 DVD players and digital media players.

The researchers were surprised to find that this approach also decreased the participants’ drug and tobacco use, as well as their level of alcohol use. They believe this approach may be able to help the estimated 15 million adults in the US who have an alcohol abuse issue. The results of the study were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Previous studies had pointed to the effectiveness of rewards as a treatment for drug abuse. Until now, their effectiveness for treating alcohol abuse had not been conclusively demonstrated. The results of the Washington State study suggest that offering rewards is a realistic approach to treating those with alcohol abuse issues. It may also be helpful for clients living with serious mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. This is particularly encouraging to researchers, since this segment of the population is particularly challenging to engage.

According to Dr. Michael McDonell, the lead investigator on the study, approximately 12 percent of people with mental illness who also have an alcohol abuse problem get treatment for both issues simultaneously. Most people in this category get separate treatment, which means they are less likely to have successful outcomes. They are more likely to drop out of treatment, have poor physical health, need psychiatric hospital admissions or become homeless.

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