Alcohol rehab programmes vary in length and we get asked a lot: How long do alcoholics have to stay in rehab? In South Africa, the most common length of stay is 21 days but many people stay in treatment for longer. Treatment for more than 90 days has been proven to be more effective and experts recommend that people, especially those with severe addiction problems, stay in rehab for at least three months if they are able to. Research shows that, on average, 35% of people will relapse in the year after treatment if their rehab programme was less than 90 days long. This drops to 17% for those who were in rehab for 90 days or longer. Relapse rates are even lower for those in treatment for a year or more.

Researchers have suggested that the 90-day mark has to do with a phenomenon known as “the sleeper effect”. The sleeper effect refers to the fact that the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, needs at least 90 days to heal to the point where decision-making and analytical functioning are restored to normal levels.

Three Phases of Treatment

Long-term addiction treatment can be broken down into three phases: Primary, secondary and tertiary. In short, it’s much like the phases of school. In Primary Care alcohol rehab there’s 24-hour supervision. Less so in Secondary Care and in tertiary Care (Halfway House) patients are expected to be near fully functioning and productive at work or studies.

Primary Care Rehabs

The primary phase of addiction treatment is often focused on stabilising the alcoholic and helping them overcome the physical symptoms of withdrawal. This phase includes a medically managed alcohol detox, intensive group and individual therapy and consultations with other HPCSA-accredited health professionals. Primary care focuses a lot on working through denial and coming to fully accept the true extent of the problem. It usually lasts 21 to 24 days.

Secondary Care Rehabs

The secondary phase of addiction treatment is focused on addressing the underlying psychological, emotional and environmental issues that contribute to the addiction. This phase may involve therapy, counselling and other evidence-based treatments, and is often referred to as long-term treatment. It can last from a couple of months to a year or more, depending on the severity of the addiction and the individual’s progress in treatment.

Tertiary Care Rehabs

The tertiary phase of addiction treatment is focused on long-term recovery and maintenance. This phase may involve ongoing therapy, peer support groups, and other aftercare services. It is usually based in a halfway house facility where individuals can integrate back into society while in a safe and supportive environment. This phase has no set time period and can last from a month to a year or more.

Length of Alcohol Rehab Programmes in SA

Private rehabs in South Africa commonly offer a primary care programme lasting at least 21 days. Some facilities offer additional secondary and tertiary programmes of varying durations.

Medical aid schemes in South Africa are obligated to cover a minimum of 21 days of inpatient addiction treatment per person per year. Discovery Health Scheme, Bonitas medical aid, GEMS, PolMed, CAMAF and more will all fund the bulk of costs associated with a 21-day detox and alcohol rehab treatment. This is why many people spend this amount of time in rehab. Not everyone can afford long-term treatment, even though it is much more beneficial.

How Long Do Alcoholics Stay In Rehab?

While longer treatment is more beneficial for individuals with addiction, many people using private healthcare only attend shorter primary care programmes which usually last for a minimum of 21 days. Experts and medical professionals recommend individuals, particularly those with severe addictions, attend treatment for at least 90 days if they can afford it.