The fate of the untreated alcoholic: Toward a natural history of the disorder

S. Imber, E. Schultz, F. Funderburk, R. Allen, R. Flamer

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29 Scopus citations


Eighty-three male alcoholics were administered a structured interview when they appeared at a large general hospital for treatment of a variety of disorders. These represent 83 consecutive cases. None received treatment aside from brief "drying-out" but all were accepted as participants in a research program. Seventy-three (88 per cent of the sample) were located for a 3-year follow-up; five of these were not seen at the 1-year follow-up, and 10 were known to be dead. This paper focuses on 58 of the alcoholics who were seen at all three evaluations, and the 10 who were known dead. The data are presented as indicating the long term results of, at best, a mild or minimal intervention with male alcoholics. A small, but significant improvement was noted on several life-adjustment scales between the initial and 1-year evaluation (OYE), but no further improvement was seen between OYE and the 3-year evaluation (TYE); 19 per cent were abstinent for 1 year and 10 per cent for the full 3-year period. The best predictor of TYE abstinence was OYE abstinence, but only for the extremes, i.e., no abstinence or total abstinence. Abstinence success was also related to a tendency to use community resources, lower number of mental hospitalizations, higher occupational status, higher global rating and, curiously, lower interpersonal adjustment rating. The group using Alcoholics Anonymous showed no better outcome than the group using no community resources at all. The mortality rate was 12 per cent over the 3 years or slightly more than 4 per cent a year. The suicide rate was about 4 per cent over the 3 years. The ratings for those dying showed a pattern of more admitted drunken arrests and heavy recent drinking superimposed on lighter overall drinking for the past year. The study demonstrates that even untreated alcoholics can be traced and effective follow-up studies completed. Results also indicate that over long time periods and left to their own devices, many alcoholics do seek out some form of help. But such assistance tends not to be sustained or intensive and a good portion of it is nonprofessional and nonmedical. Moreover, a surprisingly substantial number (31 per cent) of hospital-identified alcoholics apparently neither seek out nor receive any help at all after their initial identification; yet their self-reported life-adjustment ratings do not differ significantly from those who do seek help. The no-help receivers may be the most critical group of all to follow, as they are truly untreated. It would be important to determine how consistent in fact they are in their avoidance of help, what accounts for that behavior, and whether their ultimate fate is different from those who regularly seek assistance. Follow-up techniques with individuals initially seen in a crisis state may reflect changes that are more a function of the procedures and the settings than actual change in pathology. This indicates the importance of comparing results of treated groups with those not treated but subjected to the same evaluation procedures and conditions. This report provides one source of bench mark data for demonstrating the efficacy of alcoholism treatment programs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)238-247
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Nervous and Mental Disease
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1976
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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