• How Graduation Ceremonies Affect Addiction Treatment
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    How Graduation Ceremonies Affect Addiction Treatment

    While most 12 – step programs do not engage in graduation ceremonies for their members there are many other types of addiction and substance use disorder treatment programs that do offer graduation type ceremonies for individuals. This writer personally knows of several very prominent private counselors who specialize in the outpatient treatment of addiction and addiction – related problems who routinely graduate members of the groups who have done well after considerable periods of time of success in the program. There are also several large inpatient treatment programs known to “graduate” individuals after a period of detoxification and treatment. Izaak L. Williams, an addiction treatment specialist believes this practice to be wrong.

    First, Williams (2014) believes that one cannot graduate from being an addict. The term “graduation” means to receive some type of an academic degree, which implies that one has completed some course of study. Moreover, Williams rightly indicates that a commencement ceremony (or “exit ritual”) is a ritual or formal procedure that implies the completion of some set of requirements. Addiction treatment does not end in such a manner. Thus, Williams suggests that this tradition of graduating individuals who were being treated for an addiction should be discontinued.

    Why No One Really Graduates From Addiction Treatment

    The statistics regarding who actually attends formal treatment programs for addictive type behaviors offer the first clue as to why Williams thinks that the graduation ceremonies in these programs should be discontinued. Relapse rates and addiction are very similar to those for other chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2008). No one ever graduates from treatment for these conditions. White and Kelly (2011) note that nearly two thirds (64 %) of individuals entering addiction treatment programs in the United States have at least one previous episode of treatment for addiction and slightly over one fifth of them (22%) have four prior admissions to some type of formal treatment program for their addiction. Thus, it is clear from these figures that individuals rarely will end the need for formal addiction treatment and graduate.

    Secondly, Williams ascertains that the idea of a graduation ceremony in any type of addiction treatment leaves the person with the impression that they have been cured and that they are finished with their addiction. The high potential for relapse leads Williams to believe that this type of assumption can lead to an unrealistic view of how to move on for these individuals. Williams holds to the tradition that people recovering from an addiction need to continue or to at least participate in maintenance type programs, much the way that 12 – the programs are organized, so that they can reduce their chances of relapse. The notion that someone has graduated from an addiction treatment program leaves them with a false sense that they have completed their treatment and that they can continue on without further intervention or consideration of their past issues.

    The Role of Treatment in Addiction Recovery

    According to Williams this is all part of a broad misconception that treatment is the pathway to recovery for addiction and that treatment is entirely accountable for a person remaining sober. Williams believes that someone recovering from an addiction should actually learn that the recovery process is a long – term process of self change and that the treatment only plays a partial role in the recovery. Having graduation ceremonies in treatment programs incorrectly defines the nature and the dynamics of recovery from addiction. The notion of abstinence and sobriety for recovering addicts have much deeper meanings and the idea of a person graduating from an addiction treatment program blurs the true meaning of these terms.

    Williams openly states that he does not wish to play down the meaning of enduring through formalized treatment for addiction nor does he believe that these programs do not help individuals obtain the beginnings of their sobriety; however, he believes that any type of graduation certificate or ceremony an addiction program has no meaning other than documenting that the person has attended formal treatment. Williams believes that some type of a formal program of continuing care should be offered and the transition to continuing care should be implemented in the addiction treatment program. Therefore, graduation ceremonies in addiction treatment programs should be discontinued.

    So what is your take on graduation ceremonies in addiction treatment programs? Useful or not? Meaningful or not?


    National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2008). http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/addiction-science/relapse/relapse-rates-drug-addiction-are-similar-to-those-other-well-characterized-chronic-ill.

    White, W. L., & Kelly, J. F. (2011). Introduction: The theory, science, and practice of recovery management. In J. F. Kelly & W. L. White (Eds.), Addiction recovery management: Theory, research and practice (pp. 1–6). New York: Springer.

    Williams, I. L. (2014). Drug Treatment Graduation Ceremonies: It’s Time to Put This Long-Cherished Tradition to Rest. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly32(4), 445-457.

    Dr. Hatfield is a clinical neuropsychologist with extensive experience assessing and treating neurological and psychiatric disorders. His areas of expertise include neurobiology, behavior, dementia, head injury, addiction, abnormal psychology, personality disorders, statistics, rehabilitation psychology and research methodology.

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