The Retreat: An Integrated Community Approach to Addiction Treatment

The “Minnesota Model” of addiction treatment was created in a state mental hospital in the 1950s by two young men who didn’t have prior experience treating people with substance use disorder (SUD). The abstinence-based model spread first to a small non-profit organization called the Hazelden Foundation and then throughout the country. 

“The key element of this novel approach to addiction treatment was the blending of professional and trained nonprofessional (recovering) staff around the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA),” wrote Anderson, McGovern, and DuPont in their study on the origins of the Minnesota model. “There was an individualized treatment plan with active family involvement in a 28-day inpatient setting and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous both during and after treatment. The education of patients and family about the disease of addiction made this a busy program from morning to night, seven days a week.”

In 1991, The Community of Recovering People (CORP), a non-profit organization consisting of dedicated professionals and recovered individuals, shared their commitment to creating a continuum of affordable, accessible, and effective residential recovery services to help people recover from addiction to drugs and alcohol.

The result is an innovative residential recovery continuum that provides time out for those in need. The Retreat represents a non-clinical, mutual-help approach to recovering from substance use disorder. This supportive, educational setting is grounded in the spiritual principles of AA. By providing a safe and supportive environment to study and practice these principles, The Retreat opens the door to a life of contented sobriety.

In a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation, the co-founder and CEO of The Retreat, John Curtiss, provided a brief overview of addiction and a historical context of the founding of the Minnesota Model.  

More than 23 million people in the United States are addicted to alcohol, and more than 15 million Americans misuse prescription opioids, depressants, and stimulants each year, Curtiss told his audience. More than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 14.2 million people met the criteria for cannabis use disorder in 2020. 

The annual bill for America’s addiction crisis is an estimated “$600 billion in healthcare costs, low productivity, disability payments, welfare, crime and punishment, legal costs, family breakups, child abuse, and the array of social interventions both public and private to deal with addiction in our society,” Curtiss said. “The cost of NOT treating the 90 percent of those in need of help is far too detrimental to the good of this country to ignore.”

The Minnesota Revolution

Curtiss explained how the movement to reform Minnesota’s state asylums for the mentally ill emerged in the 1940s and ’50s. Luther Youngdahl, Minnesota’s governor from 1947–51, took legislative leadership of the mental health reform in the state. At the time, people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) were “warehoused in deplorable conditions with terrible outcomes.” Youngdahl undertook reforms of the state’s mental institutions with a view to rehabilitating the patients rather than merely “warehousing” them. “Follow-up studies over a two-year period showed a 60–80 percent death rate in the 1940s,” Curtiss told the webinar participants and then quoted Dr. Carl Menniger, who stated in 1948 that he would sooner have a young relative “be schizophrenic than alcoholic, at least there’s hope for the schizophrenics.”

Curtiss acknowledged that the Minnesota reforms owe a debt of gratitude to the Alcoholics Anonymous program. “AA is the real pioneer in this account. Without it, nothing might have been done to help the still-suffering alcoholic and their families.”

With the help of two AA members from Chicago, Pat Cronin launched AA in Minneapolis in 1940. Eight years later, the Pioneer House followed, and in 1949 the Hazelden Foundation. Key assumptions about AUD were established: that it is an illness with identifiable signs and symptoms, that it is a primary, progressive, chronic, and often fatal disease, and that it is multidimensional with physical, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects.

The concept of dual diagnosis began to emerge as well. If there is a comorbidity, it needs to be addressed in treatment together with substance misuse, as there is typically strong interaction between the two issues. “It’s a no-fault illness, patients and their families are to be treated with respect because blaming and punishing just doesn’t work,” Curtiss said. The key to the AA approach and the Minnesota model is total abstinence and good physical, social, emotional, and spiritual health. 

Furthermore, the healing process should involve the community. “Education and intervention must begin in the community.” Treatment should help patients recognize their illness and admit that they need help. Treatment should let them know they have a disease rather than a moral issue and that there is a solution: recovery is possible.

The Retreat

After 19 years with the Hazelden Foundation, Curtiss became one of the principal designers of The Retreat model. This year, The Retreat in Minnesota celebrates twenty-five years of service in the addiction treatment field. The model aims to return to a simpler, more basic approach to helping people recover. The focus is on spirituality and 12-Step facilitation, and creating a caring community. According to Dr. Bob’s dictum, it’s all about “love and service.”

The mission of The Retreat is “to improve the quality of life for individuals, families, and communities affected by alcohol and drug dependency by providing affordable and effective services grounded in the Twelve-Step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous,” explained Curtiss. 

“Grounded in evidence-based, time-tested principles of recovery, The Retreat serves adult men and women in a non-clinical, supportive-educational, mutual-help approach to recovery that emphasizes a spiritual community-based solution to the problem of addiction.”

Harmony Foundation has long utilized a holistic approach to healing addiction. Comparable to the philosophy of The Retreat, Harmony’s treatment program promotes physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, empowering patients to embark upon a lifelong recovery journey.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction or have questions about our programs, call us today at (970) 432-8075 to get the help needed as soon as possible. Our experienced staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.