What are Psychoeducational Groups in Treating Addiction?

As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has reported, psychoeducational groups provide the opportunity to learn about addiction and its consequences. These groups cover specific topics and are structured, with most groups following a set curriculum. Clients learn material through movies and lectures, and then a leader guides discussion regarding the material.

The focus of the discussion is the consequences of drug use, including negative behavioral, medical, and psychological outcomes, and clients are encouraged to participate in discussion and apply the material to their own experiences with addiction. 1 These groups can play an integral role in the recovery process, and the evidence supports their use as a part of addiction treatment. Research with psychoeducational interventions suggests that they are effective for people experiencing a variety of types of addiction, and their benefits range from decreasing substance abuse to improved psychological health.

Specific Psychoeducational Groups

While the research has shown that psychoeducational methods and groups in general can be beneficial for clients struggling with addiction, there has been a large amount of research demonstrating positive outcomes with a specific form of psychoeducational intervention, namely relapse prevention.

In 1999, researchers working for the Department of Psychology at the University of Central Florida evaluated the results of 26 different studies that assessed the benefits of relapse prevention. They published their findings in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, and they discovered that, on the whole, relapse prevention programs were effective for treating addiction. In particular, the body of research they analyzed suggested that relapse prevention is most effective for treating addiction to alcohol and to multiple substances. The researchers also determined that relapse prevention was particularly effective among patients who were also receiving medications to treat their addiction; furthermore, relapse prevention interventions were found to be more effective than advice from a doctor was. The authors of the review concluded that relapse prevention is useful for reducing drug and alcohol use and improving psychological functioning. 2

Therefore, psychoeducational groups that specifically address relapse prevention can be effective for patients in treatment for addiction. Relapse prevention groups discuss topics such as signs of relapse, how to cope with stressors, and managing relapse triggers. As the research suggests, this form of psychoeducational group is likely to be of benefit.

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Psychoeducational Groups in Clients with a Dual Diagnosis

According to the research, psychoeducational groups are useful for patients diagnosed with both addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder. A 2018 study in the Journal of Dual Diagnosis assessed the outcomes of patients with dual diagnosis who completed a ten-week psychoeducational group program. Study results showed that after the completion of the ten-week program, there was a reduction in the number of people using various types of drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and non-prescribed methadone and benzodiazepines.

Study participants also enjoyed an improvement in well-being and a reduction of their symptoms as a result of the psychoeducational group. The study authors concluded that educational approaches such as psychoeducational groups should be incorporated into addiction treatment. 3

Psychoeducational Groups for Improving Motivation in Recovery

Research with psychoeducational groups has shown benefits in terms of reducing the use of multiple substances, and an additional study has indicated that these groups can enhance motivation for change. In 2015, scientists working for the National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted a study in which they compared the effects of usual treatment to those of a program that included both usual treatment and psychoeducational groups on a group of individuals who were addicted to heroin and had experienced relapse.

Study results indicated that the psychoeducational group intervention resulted in increases in motivation and enhanced the clients’ readiness for change. These improvements were sustained at a follow up period three-months later.4 Therefore, psychoeducational groups can improve motivation for change and make clients more likely to make the changes necessary to achieve sobriety.

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Psychoeducational Groups Combined with Medication-Assisted Treatment  

In addition to increasing motivation, psychoeducational groups can be effective for those who are struggling to maintain sobriety while undergoing medication-assisted treatment. In a 2016 study in the Harm Reduction Journal, researchers from China evaluated the effects of an intervention that included psychoeducation on a group of clients who were undergoing methadone treatment and who had tested positive for heroin at least once during the three months prior to the start of the study. Both peers and doctors delivered the psychoeducational services to clients.

Study results showed that 362 out of the 492 clients in the study decreased the number of times they tested positive for heroin throughout the course of the intervention. The study authors concluded that the program was successful for reducing heroin use and promoting adherence to treatment.5

Based on the results of this study, psychoeducational groups are appropriate for use with patients who are receiving medication-assisted treatment, ant they can be effective for reducing drug use among people who have previously encountered challenges with remaining sober.

General Benefits of Groups in Addiction Treatment 

While psychoeducational interventions have specifically demonstrated effectiveness in addiction treatment, there are, in general, benefits of group approaches to substance abuse services. In 2004, researchers from Harvard Medical School reviewed these general benefits of group therapy and published their findings in Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

They analyzed the results of three different studies that compared group interventions to individual therapy for addiction, and they found that two of the studies showed that group interventions were comparable in effectiveness to individual therapy. One of the studies did indicate that patients receiving group interventions reported less cocaine use than did patients in individual therapy. They also analyzed the results of a study which found that group interventions could be effective even at lower intensities; patients who completed four hours in groups per week improved just as well as those who participated in seven weekly hours of groups did.

The authors of the review concluded that there is quality research showing that group interventions can be just as effective as individual therapy, which is beneficial because of the cost savings linked to group therapy (6). It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that patients who prefer to receive treatment in a group format, such as through participation in a psychoeducational group, can be just as successful as those who opt for individual services.

Psychoeducational groups, specifically those that address relapse prevention, have demonstrated that they can produce positive outcomes for clients in treatment for addiction. Groups in general are effective for patients who struggle with addiction, demonstrating comparable efficacy to individual treatment. In addition, the research with psychoeducation indicates that it is appropriate for use with patients receiving medication-assisted treatment, and there is even some evidence that it is especially effective among these populations.

Furthermore, psychoeducational groups can improve motivation for change among heroin users, and they have been found to be effective for reducing the use of numerous substances, ranging from alcohol to cocaine to prescription medications.

Finally, studies have indicated that psychoeducational groups can improve wellbeing and functioning. The entire body of research suggests that psychoeducational groups can be effective for a variety of different clients, and they exert multiple benefits. Patients who are thinking about engaging in treatment can benefit from participating in a psychoeducational group to improve their motivation or to learn more about their addictions, or clients already engaged in treatment can use psychoeducational groups in addition to other services to enhance their treatment experience.