Learn / Understanding Strengths-Based Therapy for Addiction and Mental Health

Understanding Strengths-Based Therapy for Addiction and Mental Health

Kayla Gill
 October 1st, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

No matter what challenges you’ve faced, you have many different strengths and skills that have helped you navigate and even overcome adversity. But we often don’t recognize our own strengths and successes.

This is partially because most traditional addiction and mental health treatments set out to help you analyze, “fix,” and avoid unhealthy habits, past mistakes and problems. Therapy that focuses on our failures and how to overcome them is referred to as deficit-based. This type of treatment is quite common and does in fact work for a lot of people.

But focusing on solving the root of your problems—from potential character flaws to past traumas—isn’t the only path to healing.

If you’re seeking recovery from a substance use disorder or a mental health disorder, strengths-based treatment programs could be a good starting point for your healing journey. Keep reading to learn more about what separates SBT from other types of treatments, plus how it works, what to expect during treatment, and how to find the right treatment for you.

What Makes Strengths-Based Different From Traditional Approaches

The main goal of most medical and psychological treatments is to stop you from hurting. And this goal is typically accomplished by treating the “bad” symptoms, which is reflective of the deficit-based approach mentioned above.

The Traditional Approach

One example of applying this method to simple physical illnesses is how when you experience a headache you might take a pain reliever like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to stop hurting. Along the same lines, to treat a mental illness like depression you could take antidepressants or go see a therapist.

While these types of solutions, also called the medical model of care, work for some people, strengths-based therapy may be more effective for addressing complex conditions like substance use disorder or major depressive disorder. One study examining the impacts of strengths-based treatments on parolees,1 discusses how part of the reason for this could be because a deficit-based model of treatment often views patients as “the problem” (e.g., one is a drug addict) which typically reinforces low expectations. Believing that you’re the problem can have an incredibly negative impact on your self-esteem, which in turn can make healing or recovery feel unreachable.

The Strengths-Based Approach

Strengths-based treatments often have similar goals to the medical model (i.e. to stop you from hurting) but this goal is accomplished in a much different way. As the same study mentioned above explains, “The strengths approach reinforces high expectations1 by viewing the situation as ‘the problem’ (e.g., one has drug dependence) and by assuming that the client has many strengths and resources with which to handle the problem.” So, instead of treating negative or “bad” symptoms, or trying to “fix” any perceived “problems,” strengths-based therapy promotes “individual empowerment through the acquisition of resources and skills that help people manage their substance use disorder2 or psychiatric disability,” writes David Loveland, the Director of Research for an addiction and mental health non-profit based in Illinois, in his manual on recovery coaching.

Simply put, sometimes we focus so much on the negatives of our situation and the mistakes we made that got us where we are, that we forget how capable we are and how much has actually gone right in our lives. SBT helps us remember and tap back into our existing resources and support systems so we can continue succeeding during recovery.

How Strengths-Based Treatment Works for Addiction

Focusing on how you handle and overcome difficulties instead of how or why those difficulties happened can increase your self-confidence, compassion, and resilience. This perspective promotes viewing your life, the situations you find yourself in, and the world around you with a positive mindset. That positivity is what makes strengths-based therapy an attractive alternative treatment option for many people.

Let Your Difficulties Fuel Your Recovery

With a strengths-based perspective, we don’t ignore the challenges we face in life. We just don’t let those challenges and the task of solving them be the driving factor during treatment. “Strengths-based therapy3 adheres to the belief that even the most challenging life stories that clients bring to therapy contain examples of their exercise of strengths in their struggle with adversity,” writes psychologist and President of the Strengths-Based Institute, Elsie Jones-Smith, in one of her textbooks on SBT. “For instance, the addict’s or substance abuser’s maladaptive responses may also contain within them the seeds of a struggle for health.”

So, the difficulties you’ve endured can even be harnessed as fuel for your recovery. “To fully understand the basis of the strengths perspective,4 it is necessary to understand that it is possible—in fact, quite likely—to face adversity and to thrive, not necessarily in spite of it but often in great part because of it,” say social work experts Jill Grant and Susan Cadell. “Studies of those who have faced adversity suggest that it can be a transformative experience, with enduring positive effects on problem-solving abilities, sensitivity, relationships, coping skills, ability to set priorities, efficacy, and self-knowledge.” The key to SBT, then, is unlocking these strengths and fostering their growth.

Tap Into the Power of Positivity

Another quality that makes SBT both different and successful for some is that the therapy sessions have a much more positive tone and outlook. “Strengths and positive emotions create an enjoyable therapy experience5 for clients to embrace new possibilities and hope for their future,” explain psychology professors Collie Conoley and Michael Scheel in their book about Goal Focused Positive Psychotherapy, which uses the strengths-based approach.

They go on to explain that, “The science of positive psychology reveals that growth and flourishing occur under known conditions: involvement in meaningful activities; experiencing supportive, caring relationships; feeling competent; having goals; and experiencing positive emotions frequently.” So, focusing on your strengths can be good for your general recovery because it actually can increase your potential for positive change and growth.

Apply This Inclusive Approach

And finally, another attractive quality of SBT is that it has universal application. Anyone anywhere can potentially benefit from SBT because, as Elsie Jones-Smith writes, “no matter what culture you live in, individuals use their strengths to deal with adversities.”6 The applications of strengths-based treatment7 across cultures and geographic locations is proven by the fact that SBT is being practiced and researched in many different countries, including “diverse European nations, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Mainland China,” according to Cynthia Franklin, a licensed social worker and assistant dean for doctoral education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Before you decide to pursue SBT for your substance use or mental health disorder, keep reading for a closer look at what this therapy looks like in practice.

What to Expect During Strengths-Based Treatment

A strengths-based recovery program will mostly likely be a bit different from other types of talk therapy you may have experienced. Though your individual recovery process and exact timeline might differ, most strengths-based treatment programs include aspects discussed below.

Building a Mutual Working Relationship

One of the key differences with SBT is how the relationship between you and your therapist will be more collaborative rather than authoritative. In their article detailing how strengths-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used to build personal resilience,8 Christine Padesky and Kathleen Mooney explain that “collaboration means that the therapist actively engages the client so each step of therapy is a mutual construction and exploration. Guided discovery is emphasized throughout therapy sessions to maintain client engagement and foster learning.” Not only should this collaborative mindset be reflected throughout all the different stages of your treatment, but it should also be ongoing and dynamic, evolving over time.

Finding and Listing Your Strengths

Strengths-based therapy is built on the assumption that everyone has strengths linked to their personalities, interests, and values. One of the first steps of your treatment will be to identify and list your strengths. This could be done by completing different kinds of assessment worksheets or through in-depth conversations.

Actually identifying these strengths, though, is one of the most difficult parts of SBT for both treatment professionals and patients. Experts explain that’s because counselors have been trained to assess and to base treatment services on peoples’ deficits and illness-related behaviors2 (i.e., the addiction or mental illness). “Assessing strengths, on the other hand, requires a focus on capacities and positive learning experiences and healthy disregard for people’s diseases or diagnostic labels.” Because of this, most therapists have to “unlearn their patterns of service delivery and learn a new style of interactions with clients.”

Similarly, patients have also been conditioned within the same treatment culture to focus on their deficits and illness-related behaviors which sometimes makes them ill-equipped to even remember or recognize their own achievements. “For this reason,” say Padesky and Mooney, “therapists search for ‘hidden strengths’8 within common everyday experiences and bring these to client awareness.”

Much like your relationship with your therapist, this list of strengths is a starting point that will be built upon throughout your treatment.

Setting Goals for Treatment and Beyond

The strengths-based approach puts you in the driver’s seat. So instead of following along with your therapist’s suggestions and advice, you’ll be more involved in the overall goal-setting and treatment process. Experts of one strengths-based treatment study1 explain that, instead of a counselor, case manager or other person setting goals for you, you would collaborate to set and achieve goals you identify as valuable and important.

According to recovery expert David Loveland, goals, assets, and barriers can be categorized into 8 life domains:

1. recovery from substance use or abuse
2. living and financial independence
3. employment and education
4. relationships and social supports
5. medical health
6. leisure and recreation
7. independence from legal problems and institutions
8. mental wellness and spirituality

Dividing our goals into more specific areas of life can “help people organize and prioritize their goals as well as to help them to see that recovery requires a holistic approach2 that will impact all dimensions of their lives,” explains David. This multifaceted approach also helps people understand “how their addiction or mental illness has impacted multiple dimensions of their lives and that sustained recovery will require work in many, if not all of these dimensions.”

Applying and Refining Your Strengths

Once you know what your strengths are and what goals you want to work towards, both in recovery and in your everyday life, you’ll have the opportunity to consciously put them into practice. During therapy sessions you may talk through the specific, tangible steps you want to take to work towards your goals, and then check in on how you’re doing.

David Loveland describes that breaking down long-term goals into “a series of simplified behaviors,” helps patients maintain hope for achieving their goals. “Self-efficacy is a component of hope and can be defined as a belief in one’s own capacities or abilities. Compiling small victories, by achieving baby steps, enhances self-efficacy.”

Just as with goal-setting, you’ll also decide which individual, treatment, and community services you want to take advantage of to achieve your goals. Taking charge of the services you’ll seek out for support along your recovery journey can also help improve your self-sufficiency. As some experts point out, the therapist or treatment professional’s role1 during this stage is to support your choices and to serve “as a ‘bridge’ between the client and an often fragmented and difficult-to-access service system.”

Finding the Right Strengths-Based Program for You

Healing is not a linear journey. It often takes trying different kinds of treatments and persisting with your goal to recover in order to find lasting change. If you want to try a new perspective and tap into your innate strengths more instead of dwelling on your past, strengths-based addiction treatment could be an option to consider.

To learn more about your treatment options, browse our directory of rehabs that offer strengths-based treatment to see reviews, facility photos and more, and reach out to centers directly.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

  1. Prendergast, M., Frisman, L., Sacks, J. Y., Staton-Tindall, M., Greenwell, L., Lin, H.-J., & Cartier, J. (2011). A multi-site, randomized study of strengths-based case management with substance-abusing parolees. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 7(3), 225–253. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-011-9123-y [] [] [] []
  2. Loveland, D., & Boyle, M. (2005). Manual for Recovery Coaching and Personal Recovery Plan Development. https://chess.wisc.edu/niatx/toolkits/provider/FayetteManual.pdf [] [] []
  3. Strengths-Based Therapy. (n.d.). https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/53278_ch_1.pdf []
  4. Grant, J. G., & Cadell, S. (2009). Power, Pathological Worldviews, and the Strengths Perspective in Social Work. Families in Society, 90(4), 425–430. https://doi.org/10.1606/1044-3894.3921 []
  5. Scheel, M. J., Conoley, C. W. (2017). Goal Focused Positive Psychotherapy: A Strengths-Based Approach. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/Goal_Focused_Positive_Psychotherapy/vYwtDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=strengths+based+approach+to+therapy&pg=PP1&printsec=frontcover []
  6. Jones-Smith, E. (2013). Strengths-Based Therapy: Connecting Theory, Practice and Skills. In Google Books. SAGE Publications. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/6cggAQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0 []
  7. Franklin, C. (2015). An Update on Strengths-Based, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. Health & Social Work, 40(2), 73-76. https://doi.org/10.1093/hsw/hlv022 []
  8. Padesky, C. A., & Mooney, K. A. (2012). Strengths-Based Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: A Four-Step Model to Build Resilience. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 19(4), 283–290. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.1795 [] []

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