A Brief History of Addiction Treatment

Robot teacher explaining a concept

Dane O'Leary May 29, 2020

Addiction treatment is a relatively young field. In fact, most of the treatments and therapeutic techniques used today were developed in just the last few decades. Considering how many lives have been (and continue to be) saved, we believe it’s almost as important to understand how addiction treatment came about as it is to understand what addiction treatment is or why it’s effective. For that reason, we are going to give you a brief look at addiction treatment history. 

In this retrospective, we’re going to answer some of your biggest questions, including: How long has addiction been around? When was the first rehab center established? How has addiction treatment evolved?

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

How Long Has Addiction Been Around?

The first records of addiction discourse dates back to the times of Aristotle (385 BC – 323 BC). Aristotle believed that substance dependence was a defect in a person’s ability to exercise willpower. He labeled this “akrasia” which translates to “incontinent will”. 

The nuances of Aristotle’s argument are much deliberated but the takeaway is that addiction has been a part of the human condition since ancient times. Addiction treatments in these times involved inhumane practices, with teeth-pulling an example of a less severe method. Since then, civilization and substance use treatment evolved. 

Traveling from Ancient Greece to Colonial America, the first known form of addiction treatment in America dates back to the 18th century.  

Addiction Treatment in Early America

In the late 18th and early 19th century, alcohol abuse was a widespread public health problem. This gave rise to two historic milestones in addiction treatment: Native American sobriety circles and the establishment of sober houses.

Sobriety Circles

The influx of European colonialists between 1750 and the early 1800s introduced Native Americans to recreational purposes of drinking as until then alcohol was only used for indigenous rituals. As a result, alcoholism under Native American tribesmen arose. 

Senior tribesmen who managed to temper their own alcohol abuse, initiated sobriety circles to help guide young tribesmen plagued by alcoholism back to sobriety. Sobriety circles urged young tribesmen to call upon ancestral strength to help them abstain. 

The idea of a sobriety circle influenced subsequent treatment paradigms and to this day Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) continues to draw on sobriety circle principles, signified through the circle that forms part of the AA logo. 

Sober Houses

The written work of Dr. Benajmin Rush (b. 1746) impacted early American addiction treatment. Referred to as the father of American psychiatry, Rush was instrumental in advocating for alcoholism to be treated as a chronic, medical condition. He argued that alcoholism was a result of the drinker losing control over him- or herself, opposing the accepted view of addiction as an issue of morality. 

Rush’s arguments gave rise to the concept of a specialized hospital for treating alcoholism, significant to the origins of drug rehabs, called sober houses or inebriate homes. Starting in and around Boston, inebriate homes modeled after insane asylums, offering detox and so-called moral reframing treatments.

Rush’s work was also a catalyst for the ideals of the Temperance era, an early 19th-century movement championing abstinence of substance use, and inebriate homes were its trademark institution. 

Were sober houses the first-ever form of rehab centers? Not entirely – this happened a few decades later. 

When Was the First Rehab Center Established?

Group therapy at an addiction treatment center

The first treatment center resembling present-day rehab opened in 1864. The New York Inebriate Asylum was the first-ever medically managed facility treating alcoholism.

This was a powerful milestone in the scope of addiction treatment. Here’s a highlight reel of influential addiction treatment events in the century that followed:

  • 1870: One of the requirements of the unorthodox Keeley Cure was a 31-day stay in a treatment center, prioritizing exercise, fresh air, and healthy eating. This clearly had a direct influence on the modern drug and alcohol rehab. 
  • 1880s: Sigmond Freud (and other psychologists) touted cocaine as a treatment to alcoholism and morphine addiction. However, he would later backtrack on this position.
  • 1901: Charles B. Townsend Hospital, a private institution specializing in addiction treatment, opens in New York. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Bill Wilson, was treated here. 
  • 1906: The Emmanuel Movement was a religious approach to treating alcoholism through psychotherapy. The spiritual approach that remains the foundation of AA as it is practiced today traces back to this church-based movement from Boston. Dr. Elwood Worcester, the movement’s founder, posed that human existence consisted of inseparable interactions of body, mind, and spirit. Besides bearing similarities to contemporary research on psychotherapy and religion, Dr. Worcester’s perspective is also consistent with the holistic approach to addiction treatment that many treatment centers use today. 
  • 1935: Alcoholics Anonymous is officially established. A Christian organization called the Oxford Group was highly influential with its perspectives having informed the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Additionally, narcotics farms opened in this year. 
  • 1970s: The FDA approves methadone and Narcan. Additionally, acupuncture treatment gains popularity as a treatment for addiction. The Controlled Substance Act takes effect. 

Recent History of Addiction Treatment 

In the last five decades, the FDA went on to approve addiction medications naltrexone and buprenorphine, and legislation supporting substance abuse treatment — the Drug Addiction Treatment Act, The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act — passed.

Modern advancements in addiction treatment are the culmination of a history of oscillating views on substance abuse.

Since the 1970s there’s also been an upswing in the establishment of addiction treatment programs and organizations including The Betty Ford Clinic, Cocaine Anonymous, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), Rational Recovery, and SMART Recovery. Modern advancements in addiction treatment are the culmination of a history of oscillating views on substance abuse.

Back-and-forths between moral and medical attitudes towards addiction peppers its treatment history. Looking at the future, the hope is that progress in destigmatizing addiction remains the springboard for all treatment applications. 

No Matter Your History – Find Help at Silicon Beach Treatment Center 

Whatever your addiction history looks like, at Silicon Beach Treatment Center, we’re here to help. We offer a number of outpatient substance abuse programs. Whether you’re looking for LA addiction treatment or just want some questions answered, we’re here for you, so contact us today.

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