But another reason for the low rates of treatment is that problem drinkers are often in denial, said Dr. Compton at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Studies show that most people who meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder do not feel that they need treatment for it, even when they acknowledge having all the hallmarks of the condition, like trying to cut back on alcohol to no avail, experiencing strong cravings, and continuing to drink despite it causing health and relationship problems.
“People are perfectly willing to tell you about their symptoms and the difficulties they face,” Dr. Compton said. “But then if you say, ‘Do you think you need treatment?’ they will say they do not. There’s a blind spot when it comes to putting those pieces together.”
Studies suggest that a major barrier to people seeking treatment is that they believe that abstinence is their only option. That perception is driven by the ubiquity and long history of 12-step programs like A.A. that preach abstinence as the only solution to alcoholism. For some people with severe drinking problems, that may be necessary. But studies show that people who have milder forms of alcohol use disorder can improve their mental health and quality of life, as well as their blood pressure, liver health and other aspects of their physical health, by lowering their alcohol intake without quitting alcohol entirely. Yet the idea that the only option is to quit cold turkey can prevent people from seeking treatment.
“People believe that abstinence is the only way — and in fact it’s not the only way,” said Katie Witkiewitz, the director of the Addictive Behaviors and Quantitative Research Lab at the University of New Mexico and a former president of the Society of Addiction Psychology. “We find robust improvements in health and functioning when people reduce their drinking, even if they’re not reducing to abstinence.”
For people who are concerned about their alcohol intake, Dr. Witkiewitz recommends tracking exactly how much you drink and then setting goals according to how much you want to lower your intake. If you typically consume 21 drinks a week, for example, then cutting out just five to 10 drinks — on your own or with the help of a therapist or medication — can make a big difference, Dr. Witkiewitz said. “Even that level of reduction is going to be associated with improvements in cardiovascular functioning, blood pressure, liver function, sleep quality and mental health generally,” she added.
Here are some tools that can help.
Ria Health is a telehealth program that offers treatment for people with alcohol use disorder. It provides medical consultations, online coaching, medication and other tools to help people lower their alcohol intake or abstain if they prefer. It costs $350 a month for the annual program, cheaper than most rehab programs, and accepts some forms of health insurance.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a free website called Rethinking Drinking that can help you find doctors, therapists, support groups and other ways to get treatment for a drinking problem.
Cutback Coach is a popular app that helps people track their alcohol intake and set goals and reminders so they can develop healthier drinking habits. The service allows people to track their progress and sends out daily reminders for motivation. The cost is $79 if you pay annually, $23 per quarter or $9 a month.
Moderation Management is an online forum for people who want to reduce their drinking but not necessarily abstain. The group offers meetings, both online and in person, where members can share stories, advice and coping strategies. It also maintains an international directory of “moderation-friendly” therapists.
CheckUp & Choices is a web-based program that screens people for alcohol use disorder. It provides feedback on your drinking habits and options for cutting back. The service charges $79 for three months or $149 per year.