Shame on me – Stigma and addiction in treatment

I keep hearing that back in the old days of addiction treatment, shame was the main motivating factor used by rehab counselors. Everyone admits that it proved to be a horrible motivator. It simply didn’t work! With all the advances in research into addiction, that must have changed, right?

I don’t think so. I see shame and stigma every time I hear an addict talk about their drug use. The shame is there in their eyes as they tell the stories of their trouble and the struggles of their recovery. Given the low rates of success in addiction treatment, the shame rests firmly in the inability to quit as well. A relapse is often seen as the ultimately shameful experience for an addict. The stigma of addicts as hopeless is rampant.

Still, we have evidence of genetic predisposition to drug abuse and addiction, we know of environmental factors that make it more likely that people will get hooked. The effect of many drugs on the brain make unsuspecting lab animals as likely to become addicted as any one of us and I’m pretty sure that shame doesn’t play a role in their process.

With all this evidence, why is the stigma of drug addicts still around? Why are they the only ones being blamed for their condition?

The evidence I cited isn’t that different from that known for cancer, yet we scarcely blame cancer patients for their disease. Even in the case of smokers who become ill, their is still sympathy for their suffering. So why are addicts different?

There are good addiction treatment options out there, as long as we don’t give up on the person and simply view their addiction as evidence of their weak character. Given the changes that long term drug use produces in the brain, it’s a miracle anyone recovers at all. We should be grateful for that.

Is personal experience necessary for successful addiction treatment?

In the “recovery” community, one often hears about how the best person to reach an addict is another addict in recovery. The question is whether personal experience with, and victory over, addiction is necessary for a counselor or therapist to be successful in providing successful addiction treatment?

I’ll spoil the surprise by telling you that I personally don’t believe such personal experience is necessary, and that is despite my own personal experience with addiction. I also think that spreading the notion that the above is true is counterproductive to addiction treatment as a field and that it creates an atmosphere whereby mental health professional are a little weary of getting involved in treating drug addicts.

Personal experience as a requirement for treatment in general?

Imagine for a second that you had acne and needed to get a treatment for it, would you only seek out dermatologists who have had severe acne as teenagers themselves thinking they will be best able to assist you? What about if you were diagnosed with cancer or diabetes? I’m assuming most of you can see that requiring the ones treating us to have experience with the same issues we’re dealing with is a bit silly, at least in the physical health sense. We need clinicians that know what they’re doing, can diagnose problems quickly and accurately, and who are familiar with appropriate treatment options and keep up with the latest advancements. They don’t need to have personal-experience with the problem.

But what about mental health issues like depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, would having one of those require a therapist who suffers from the same disorder in order to truly provide tangible results? Should schizophrenics only be treated by schizophrenics? Here again I think that most people can see that experience is not necessary. It might be nice to have a therapist who sympathizes, but really, what we need is knowledge and ability, which often involved empathy, but not necessarily shared experience.

So what makes addiction so different and special?

There’s no doubt that addicts like to think of themselves as special. I would certainly place myself in that group and have personally heard countless addicts who are no longer using exclaim that once addict recover “we are a special and capable bunch.” All of this makes sense in the whole “in-group/out-group” mentality that is so familiar to everyone in psychology as an effect generally observable in the population. But my sense is that when it comes to treatment it can be a dangerous premise.

Think about it – There is no question that addicts are far less common than the general non-addicted population. This means that in essence, believing this dogma – that addicts are best treated by other addicts – leaves the field less open to outside influence that are no doubt able generate great insight into the addiction treatment field. We can feel as special as we want, but I hope that no one believes that addicts somehow have a monopoly on knowledge, expertise, ability, and empathy. We don’t, and thinking we do is at best narcissistic and at worst ignorant and stupid.

I work with dozens of researchers who have no first-hand knowledge of what smoking crack uncontrollably is like (and probably a handful who do) and I can tell you that each of them has had incredible insight into the problems of addiction. I can also tell you that I’ve met many addicts in recovery who think they have found the end-all-be-all answer to our collective problems simply because these things have worked for them. Experience as an addict does not equal insight into addiction treatment. Experience in recovery may give some insight, but thinking that it is necessary and sufficient for providing great treatment is… unwise.

I believe that we need to get better at measuring, identifying, and replicating good addiction treatment, not setting up barriers for clinicians interested in treating addicts based on their own personal experience. My guess is that as we do this we’ll find that some addicts are great at treating addiction and some are horrible and that the same goes for “normies.”

A word about animal research and animal rights

Animal research is a controversial topic in some circles.

ucla-van-on-fireAs some of you may know already, a UCLA group has recently banded together to counter-protest the fear-mongering tactics used by animal rights activists. Before UCLA Pro-Test became a reality, researchers on campus would hide away when on campus demonstration came our way. No more.

Dr. David Jentsch, who was one of my UCLA advisors, had his car burned and his work, and life, threatened by one of the more extreme, terrorist, animal-rights groups. I’m all for debate, but blowing up cars makes you lose your place at the table as far as I’m concerned.

So what are the animal-rights arguments?

Animal rights groups claim that animal research is simply sadistic and that it does not benefit us at all.

The notion that animal researchers enjoy hurting animals is so wrong as to be insulting. I’ve conducted animal research myself and know dozens of others who have. Not one of us enjoys hurting animals and we do our best to conduct everything in ways that minimize any discomfort to the animals. Additionally, government regulations regarding animal welfare in research are very strict and highly regulated. Research involving animals is always done while considering its necessity and weighing alternative options (like using cells, tissue, computer models, etc.).

The thought that animal research doesn’t benefit us is naive at best, but more likely purposefully misleading. Here’s a small, partial, list of advances that were made possible through animal research:

  1. Penicillin (mice)
  2. Insulin (dogs, mice, rabbits)
  3. Anesthetics (rats, rabbits, dogs)
  4. Polio Vaccine (mice, monkeys)
  5. Heart transplants (dogs)
  6. Meningitis Vaccine (mice)
  7. Cervical Cancer Vaccine (rabbits, cancer)
  8. Gene therapy for Muscular Dystrophy and Cystic Fibrosis (mice).
  9. Techniques such as bypass surgery, joint replacement, carcinogen screening & blood transfusions have all been developed & improved using animals

Now if anyone wants to claim that none of the above have significantly improved, or indeed saved, human lives, I’m ready for the debate.

Global Commission on Drug Policy: Legalization, decriminalization, and the war on drugs

A commission made up of some big names, though not really any names of addiction or drug researchers I noticed, just released a report that’s making a lot of noise throughout every news channel including NPR (see here, and here for stories) and others (see CNN). They want the debate about the current state of drug regulation expanded, and since I’ve written on the issue before, I figured it’s time for another stab at this. Continue reading “Global Commission on Drug Policy: Legalization, decriminalization, and the war on drugs”

Two Million Dollars a piece – The cost of drug use and violence

The average cost to society of a lifelong criminal = About $2 million

I’ll get into more of this in later posts (I already talked about the cost of addiction prevention versus treatment versus enforcement), but if that cost of drug use and violence doesn’t cry out for a better application of money to prevention and addiction treatment, I don’t know what does.

At that cost, even if a treatment method costs $10k per client, it only needs to work for 1 out of 200 people to break even, and benefit society while doing so. In reality, our success rates are much higher than .5% (1/200) and closer to 15%-25%. When you take into account the fact that average cost of a month in addiction treatment (residential, outpatient treatment is much cheaper) is indeed about $7000-$10,000, it seems silly not to avoid the cost of crime by greatly reducing drug use, and hence criminal behavior.

NIDA, the government’s top agency for drug and alcohol abuse research recommends three months of treatment, but even then, success rates as low as 2% would leave us with a profit by providing treatment. Screw it, even a whole year of treatment would save us money if it succeeded but I can tell you that funding for that kind of addiction treatment length is almost non-existent, especially when compared to the actual need.

So with success rates about 20 to 30 times higher than our break-even point, we would literally benefit, and I’m talking financially, from helping people with treatment as expensive as $100,000 or more (as long as it worked). One of the things I’ve learned in all my work has been that while some individuals are actually interested in helping people, yes, even if they’ve been dirty drug addicts who have commited crimes, almost everyone cares about money. So forget for a second about all the social justice arguments to be made for helping addicts and think about the cost savings to our society… It makes sense.

True, true, not all drug users who would enter treatment would become lifelong offender, but if you’re still keeping tabs, even if only 1/20 or so do, we’re more than breaking even here. In fact, with our prison populations exploding as more and more drug users enter the system, I bet we’re in for some real savings.

Citation:

Dodge, K. A. (2008) Framing public policy and prevention of chronic violence in American youths. America Psychologist, 63, 573-590.

Body image and medicalization: Socially relevant behavioral “addictions” beyond drug use

We know that addiction can go beyond drug use, but are we becoming addicted to making our bodies perfect?

I put “addiction” in parentheses here because I think it’s important to distinguish substance-related addictions from behavioral ones. There’s no doubt that people’s behavior can become compulsive in the same way addicts become compulsive about using, but I’ve seen no evidence that behavioral addictions interfere with brain function in the way that cocaine, methamphetamine, and opiates alter actual brain mechanisms.

Still, this recent trend of obsessive plastic surgery is a dual-headed “addiction”, one that is both physical and social.  In many ways, people are now able to change aspects of their being that were once thought unalterable including their own physical appearances. To gain social acceptance, if you have money, you now have new tools!

This may also play a big role for those who are love addicted, at least if they have money… Continue reading “Body image and medicalization: Socially relevant behavioral “addictions” beyond drug use”

Sometimes it just takes blind faith – Depression and drug use

I don’t normally like sharing this kind of stuff, but I think that if the point of the blog is be truthful, I need to cover all bases. When it comes to depression and drug use, I have personal experience with the connection.

When depression hits – Drug use and self-medication

I don’t always wake up ready to take on the day.

I know that what I’m doing is important, and I know that if I keep going I’ll be successful. Still, sometimes I wake up and feel like there’s really no point; like getting out of bed is useless and that I’m doomed to be nothing. Continue reading “Sometimes it just takes blind faith – Depression and drug use”