Reduce alcohol relapse rates with changes to treatment, says expert

Current treatments for people with alcohol addiction could be improved to reduce high rates of relapse, according to an expert clinical psychologist speaking at the APS Clinical Psychology Conference in Sydney this week.

APS Fellow Erika Leonard, a former senior consultant psychologist to drug rehabilitation program Odyssey House in Melbourne, says vital social and behavioural strategies are omitted from existing treatment programs reducing their effectiveness.

Estimates suggest that 40 per cent of Australians drink at dangerous levels and relapse rates for those who seek treatment are high.

“Many of the available counselling and detox programs are too short to be effective,” says Ms Leonard, who has been working with people with alcohol addiction for over 30 years.
“And key elements that will help people avoid relapse are not included.”

She says that while the underlying causes and triggers for drinking are addressed in alcohol treatment programs, little attention is paid to people’s purchasing and drinking behaviour, how they will mix socially as a “non-drinker” and to finding a personal motivation for giving up drinking.

“With gamblers a lot of attention is paid to where and when they gamble but in the alcohol sector this tends to be ignored, but if someone is going to avoid relapse their buying and drinking patterns must be addressed.”

She added that there was often a moral judgment applied to drinking that also affected the way people with alcohol addiction were perceived and treated.

“AA grew out of the temperance movement and there is a strong undercurrent in that model of drinking being a moral flaw.  This can give rise to negative feelings about trying to change for some people.”

She said a basic tenet of behaviour change is that people need a strong motivation to change, a positive motivating factor.

“People won’t be successful unless they have their own good reason to give up drinking.  Each person needs to set their own individual goal – like an elite athlete who accepts that junk food or late nights won’t benefit their performance, people need to have a goal that supersedes any perceived benefits of drinking alcohol.”

Ms Leonard advocates that psychologists working with people with alcohol addiction address these issues in order to assist their clients.


For more information, or to arrange an interview contact: Karen Coghlan on 03 8662 3301, Rebecca Matthews on 03 8662 3358 or Judith Heywood on 03 8662 3301 or call the media phone on 0435896444.

View the conference program.

The APS is the largest professional organisation for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to people’s lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.