Why Do Fewer than One in Ten Alcohol Addicts Get Treatment?

Alcoholic intervention

Addiction is a serious problem that hinders the American people—a public health crisis that claims the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year. And though illicit drugs tend to receive the most attention in discussions about substance abuse, alcohol addiction is just as critical an issue, if not more so.

Millions of Americans are addicted to alcohol, yet fewer than one in ten receive treatment for alcohol addiction. Public health officials, policymakers, community leaders, and individual families need to understand why so few alcohol addicts get help. Doing so is the first step in creating more effective ways of convincing addicts to seek treatment.

New Findings on America’s Alcohol Addiction Treatment Gap

The treatment gap remains one of the most critical problems in effectively addressing addiction in America. A group of researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published a recent study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research confirming the existence of such a gap. The researchers found that the gap is considerably wider than previously thought.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has long reported that only about 10% of alcohol addicts receive treatment for their addictions. But according to the new research, “Of the 214,505 persons included in the sample, the weighted prevalence of AUD [alcohol use disorder] was 7.8%. Only a minority of individuals received subsequent steps of care, including 11.6% who reported receiving a brief intervention, 5.1% who were referred to treatment, and 5.8% who received treatment.“ Simply stated, while approximately 8% of the American adult population struggles with alcohol addiction (that’s more than 18 million people), only about 5.8% of this group enter addiction treatment. That means just over one million alcohol addicts receive care, in a group of 18 million who need it.

Doctor talks with patient

The researchers interviewed their study participants to determine what aspect of America’s public health response was failing the 8% of participants who met the criterion for alcohol addiction. According to their findings, while doctors and other care providers were screening patients for addiction, they were not doing much beyond that. According to the data, 80% of alcohol addicts had seen a doctor or been to the emergency room in the past year, and 70% said they’d been questioned about their drinking habits.

But that’s where the health interventions stop. The researchers revealed that fewer than 12% of alcohol addicts said their doctors advised them to cut down on drinking. An even smaller percentage of addicts (5%) said their doctors attempted to refer them to a treatment center.

Finally, the study concluded by revealing that only 5.8% of alcohol addicts ever receive addiction treatment, a percentage considerably lower than the 10% that’s long been believed by the National Institutes of Health to represent alcohol addicts receiving care.

There are many ways that doctors and other medical providers can take a more active role in ensuring their patients receive care. Quoting Pat Aussem, the associate vice president for consumer clinical content development at the nonprofit Partnership to End Addiction, “Some doctors blamed patients for their drinking and any related problems, and ’assumed patients knew how to solve them.’ In other cases, primary care doctors may be uncomfortable tackling the issue because they lack training, or may not have a strong ’referral base’ (a go-to list of providers who specialize in AUD treatment).” The researchers encouraged healthcare providers to ensure patients receive treatment for alcohol addiction. Screening for alcohol misuse and confirmation of addiction is not enough.

Why Don’t Alcohol Addicts Get Help?

The fact that many alcohol addicts are screened for addiction by their medical providers but then not immediately helped into treatment is certainly a contributing factor in America’s treatment gap. But many other factors contribute to the issue.

Woman alcoholic

Alcohol addiction often lends itself to a mindset where one does not actively try to seek treatment. There are many reasons for this. Some examples include:

  • The individual feels like alcohol addiction is permanent. There is a fair amount of stigma and stereotype attached to alcohol addiction, which leads some to believe that such addiction is permanent and incurable. Family members of addicts can address this by working to convince their addicted loved ones that they can break free.
  • The addict feels as though treatment is not available or accessible. People who struggle with alcohol addiction will sometimes feel as though they cannot access treatment because they cannot find a treatment center that accepts their insurance, or that there are no centers near them, or that the waiting list for centers is much too long. Helping them search for effective treatment programs that are accessible can help alleviate this concern.
  • They might feel trapped by family or work obligations. Addicts will sometimes feel as though they cannot get away from their work or family to seek treatment. Their loved ones must work with them and get them to see that, as long as they do not get help for addiction, they are ultimately more of a hindrance to their family and work than they are a help. Seeking treatment and getting off alcohol can change that.
  • Addicts may act shameful or secretive about addiction. They might not be willing to even talk about it, in which case their family members must be diligent and persistent while also being kind, caring, and compassionate.
  • They might not want to travel or take time off for treatment. Their family members must impress upon them the importance of getting treatment. It will be life-changing for the better.
  • They might not feel that treatment will work. Today, while it is true that millions of Americans are addicted to alcohol, there are millions more who got off of alcohol successfully. Freedom from alcohol addiction is attainable. No addict should feel as though they are stuck with alcohol addiction for life.

Alcohol Addiction is Harmful and Lethal – If You Know Someone Who is Addicted, Make Sure They Get Help

Perhaps because it is legal, or possibly because its consumption is so accepted and normalized in society, alcohol consumption and the harms that come with it do not receive nearly enough attention. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 95,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes every year, more than all deaths from all addictive drugs combined.

The NIAAA estimates that about 14.5 million American adults are addicted to alcohol, a conservative estimate compared to the study findings written above. The NIAAA also estimates that 414,000 adolescent Americans are addicted to alcohol. More than ten percent of American youths grow up with at least one alcohol addict for a parent.

Alcohol addiction is a serious, crisis-level problem in the United States. It’s time the American people came together and demanded that this problem be treated with a level of attention, effort, and commitment proportional to the severity of the crisis. If you or someone you care about is addicted to alcohol and cannot break free, make sure to seek the help of a qualified drug and alcohol treatment center as soon as possible.


Reviewed by Matt Hawk, BS, CADC-II, ICADC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.