A systematic review of studies examining effectiveness of therapeutic communities

Lynne Magor-Blatch, Navjot Bhullar, Bronwyn Thomson, Einar Thorsteinsson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to systematically review quantitative research since 2000 on the effectiveness of residential therapeutic communities (TCs) for the treatment of substance-use disorders with reference to substance-use, crime, mental health and social engagement outcomes.

Design/methodology/approach - A systematic search with broad inclusion criteria resulted in the review of 11 studies. The studies investigated community-based TCs, as well as TCs modified for prisoners, prisoners transitioning to community living and TCs for individuals with co-occurring substance-use and mental health issues.

Findings - Results were analysed by comparing the findings of the studies under investigation, of which three studies investigated within-subjects outcomes, four compared TC treatment with a no-treatment control condition and four compared TC treatment with another treatment condition. Conclusion: consistent with previous systematic reviews of TCs, outcomes varied across studies but indicated TCs are generally effective as a treatment intervention, with reductions in substance-use and criminal activity, and increased improvement in mental health and social engagement evident in a number of studies reviewed.

Research limitations/implications - Variability in outcomes suggests further TC research and research syntheses focusing on a second key research question in the evaluation of complex interventions - how the intervention works - could play an important role in understanding TC effectiveness, and for whom it is effective and in what contexts.

Originality/value - The strength of the current study is that it provided a broad evaluation of TC effectiveness across a range of outcomes (substance-use, criminal activity, mental health and social engagement), and is therefore valuable in updating the current literature and providing context for future research in this area. It aimed to address a key question in evaluating complex interventions: whether they are effective as they are delivered. Findings suggest that TC treatment is generally effective for the populations of concern in reducing substance use and criminal activity and contributing to some improvement in mental health and social engagement outcomes.

Practical implications - Although there is some variability in treatment populations included in this review, evidence reported in other studies suggests individuals with severe substance-use disorders, mental health issues, forensic involvement and trauma histories, will benefit from TC treatment. This is supported by the literature which has found a general relationship between severity of substance use and treatment intensity (Darke et al., 2012; De Leon et al., 2008) with outcomes further enhanced by self-selection into treatment and appropriate client-treatment matching (see De Leon, 2010; De Leon et al., 2000, 2008). The weight of evidence gleaned from multiple sources of research, including randomised control trials and field outcome studies (De Leon, 2010) suggests TCs are an important and effective treatment for clients in improving at least some aspects of their quality of life, specifically mental health and social engagement, and in reducing harmful behaviours, including substance-use and crime. Variability in treatment setting and populations reflect the real-world setting in which TC treatment is delivered, providing a multifaceted treatment modality to a complex population in variable circumstances.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)168-184
Number of pages17
JournalThe International Journal of Therapeutic Communities
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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