Information Sheet on Medication for Opioid Use Disorder

Medication for Opioid Use Disorder

A shortened, printable .pdf of the information sheet is here.

A printable .pdf of the infographic by Laurel Sindewald is here. It is updated from our original post here.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Related reports on addictions treatment, addictions recovery, and addictions policy from Handshake Media, Incorporated:

This post was last updated 8/15/2017.

A Brief Guide to Evidence-Based Self-Care for Recovery from Addiction

Intended to supplement medical and professional care for substance use disorders, this guide offers a brief, straightforward distillation of the latest information and research on addictions recovery self-care.

Organized in a series of three handouts, the guide offers compassionate, supportive assistance to individuals with substance use issues who are already receiving medical and professional care. Professionals and concerned others may want to offer it as a link or printed packet. Passages are stated simply, but link to authoritative sources for corroboration and further exploration.

Self-help does not equal treatment. Substance use disorders are complex health conditions requiring medical and professional care.

The handouts were originally written by the author as personal guidance after extensive reviews of the research on addiction, hence the use of the pronoun “you,” but they are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for individualized medical or professional advice. Individuals are urged to consult with qualified health care professionals for personalized medical and professional advice.

Original segments of this post were first published by The Fix here, here and here.  This post was last updated 7/18/17.

. . . . .

A Brief Guide to Evidence-Based Self-Care for Recovery from Addiction

Handout 1

“Love, evidence & respect.”
– Maia Szalavitz’s answer via Twitter to the question, “What fights addiction?”

1.  Who you are does not cause addiction.

2. Nothing bad you have done, nor good you failed to do, caused addiction.

3. You do not deserve addiction, nor do you deserve not to have addiction. It’s just an unfortunate condition having no moral value one way or the other.

4. You are not the problem. Addiction is the problem. Let’s see what we can do to solve or improve this for your unique, individual situation. And we’ll do this with compassion. As Maia Szalavitz writes, “To return our brains to normal then, we need more love, not more pain.”

We need more love, not more pain

“…we need more love, not more pain.” – Maia Szalavitz

5. Get medical care for the medical condition of addiction. Forced abstinence can result in dangerous withdrawal symptoms, decreased tolerance and increased craving, an intolerable emotional and mental state, and risk of a dangerous, potentially deadly, return to use.

6. Symptoms of addiction can appear as thoughts, words, and actions perceived as irrational, anti-social, and immoral. Addiction is not, in and of itself, a thought problem, a moral problem, a spiritual problem, a mental illness, or a behavior problem. Addiction is not a personality type. It’s a brain condition, contentiously defined, uncertainly located, and uncertainly targeted for treatment, but detectable in the brain at the minutest level.

7. Unfortunately, at this time, we know of nothing you can specifically do on your own to immediately and directly treat, cure, or reverse malfunctions in brain structures associated with addiction. Until we can identify exactly which brain structures and circuits to treat with medications, stimulation or probes, and what beneficially modifies them, for now, other than directly through the medications we know of, we’ll have to use indirect means.

8. However, what can directly administer care to brain structures is protecting them from problematic substances. That’s why obtaining medical care and professional help to assist with abstinence or harm reduction is critical. Over time, helpful changes may occur in the brain in the absence of overwhelming or damaging substances.

9. Focus maximum effort on becoming aware, very specifically, of what helps you stay abstinent and what does not. If you’re practicing harm reduction, discover what helps you use less, less often, or use less problematic substances. Acute awareness takes painstaking attention, but the logic is simple. If you can become aware of inner and outer conditions that precede use, you may be able to do something about them. If you don’t know, you can’t.

10. Needing or wanting to abstain, and firmly deciding and being resolved to quit, unfortunately – as you know from former heroically determined efforts to quit followed by heartbreaking returns to use, all explained by the brain science of addiction – aren’t sufficient to achieve abstinence.

11. You must learn what each substance did for you or meant to you, how you related to it, how it worked for you, and how it eased or enhanced your experience or your life. Discovering this, and finding alternate ways to get your needs met, is difficult but worthy, essential work. Again, the logic is simple. If you can learn what substances did for you, and find alternate ways to get most of that done – regrettably, possibly never again to the extent substances did – you’re more likely to be able to do without them.

12. Repeat: Go to a doctor. Although medical treatments for directly treating the brain for most substance use disorders are currently unknown (however, methadone and buprenorphine directly affect brain areas involved in opioid use disorder), several medications can be helpful with creating the stability necessary for intensive self-learning. In addition to being assessed for medication-assisted treatment (MAT), ask to be screened for mental illnesses and physical illnesses that might be causing conscious and unconscious stress and distress, the primary precursors to a return to use. (If you don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to self-pay, try to find local organizations that will help you get health insurance or help you with costs for medical care.)

13. Abstain from self-judgment. Become aware of a learned pattern of self-harshness, now nearly automatic. It feeds shame, a primary source of inner distress. Self-discernment is a compassionate process of discovering one’s strengths. In contrast, self-judgment cruelly weakens, reduces and demoralizes. As Maia Szalavitz urges, treat yourself for addiction by loving yourself, getting evidence-based care, and respecting the gravity of this illness and the heroic effort required to handle it.

Turn towards reality and truth

Turn towards reality and truth, not away from them.

Handout 2

“Addictive disorders are a major public health concern, associated with high relapse rates, significant disability and substantial mortality. Unfortunately, current interventions are only modestly effective. Preclinical studies as well as human neuroimaging studies have provided strong evidence that the observable behaviours that characterize the addiction phenotype, such as compulsive drug consumption, impaired self-control, and behavioural inflexibility, reflect underlying dysregulation and malfunction in specific neural circuits.”
– Spagnolo and Goldman, 2017

“[W]hat if the negative thinking patterns, feelings, and behaviors that keep them stuck have powerful, unconscious advantages serving vital, even life-preserving purposes?”
David Burns, 2017

“People may not have caused all of their own problems, but they have to solve them anyway.”
Marsha Linehan , 2012

1. Expect to feel shock, grief, rage and other strong emotions over the before-and-after states addiction brings to your life. Practice self-kindness and self-compassion and find others who can support you when you experience these.

2. Seek stability. Become aware of how you define stability, what individually helps you achieve and maintain stability (emotionally, mentally, physically, occupationally, relationally, situationally), and try to make these happen for yourself. Suppression, repression, avoidance and obfuscation can backfire and destabilize. Turn towards reality and truth, not away from them. (If you have concerns about whether or not what you’re thinking is real or true, see #5 below.)

3. Get counseling. At this time, it is not known if counseling directly treats the brain in an efficient, targeted way for addiction. (For opioid use disorder, for example, multiple studies fail to prove that counseling with medication increases abstinence rates over medication alone). But counseling can help people maintain abstinence, often by assisting with awareness. The main precursors to a return to use are stress, distress, and environmental cues. Environmental cues include being around substances, in situations, and with people associated with use. Make sure the counselor offers an evidence-based therapeutic approach. The Surgeon General’s report, Facing Addiction in America, lists cognitive behavior therapy, CBT, as the top evidence-based counseling approach for assisting people with addiction maintain abstinence or harm reduction. Dialectical behavior therapy, DBT, also included in the report, is increasingly proving effective as well.

4. The more you can 1) learn to become aware of, and regulate, your inner experience of feelings, thoughts and physical sensations – optimally for you individually, not by someone else’s methods or criteria, 2) discover what needs you personally have and what uniquely and healthily meets them, and 3) help yourself avoid environmental cues or manage exposure to them, the more likely you are to be stable and, therefore, the less likely you will be to use.

5. Run even your simplest ideas by others before taking action. Your thinking may not be as clear as it will be in the future.Consulting others will help protect you from error.

6. Seek contact with people who help you clarify your feeling and thinking, who are non-judgmental, and with whom you feel safe and supported. Become aware of how you feel about yourself when you’re talking with anyone and everyone. If you don’t feel good, however you might define “good,” that’s stressful and potentially destabilizing. Find a way to have limited or no contact with those with whom you feel unsafe and unsupported, at least in the short-term.

7. Listen for fact vs. opinion when people talk with you about addiction. Are they sharing the latest science  and research reports on addiction or are they sharing opinions based on beliefs, personal experiences or outdated information? If they’re sharing an opinion, do they acknowledge it as such and explain how they derived it? Or are they stating opinions as facts? Practice caution and care with whom and with what you let into your vulnerable mind and heart.

8. Practice engaging, disengaging, and shifting your attention. Discover and focus your attention on what is preferable to you, rather than attempting to force your mind to think what you believe will please or protect, or letting it grind in patterns that have simply become habitual rather than helpful. This power over your attention can give you enormous power to enjoy your life, to assist yourself with enjoying the company of others, and to increase others’ pleasure in your company. Impossible as it sounds, exercising your power to focus your attention may exercise brain functions atrophied from substance use. Many people with substance use disorders have experienced trauma and find using the mind for meditation distressing. Meditation, therefore, may not be advised. Marsha Linehan, inventor of dialectical behavior therapy, DBT, recommends what she terms “mindfulness” instead. A simple, DBT-based mindfulness practice involves using your attention to observe what’s going on within and without and to describe those to yourself. (Here’s a brief YouTube video of Marsha Linehan explaining mindfulness, part of a series of videos on the core principles of DBT.) Some people find the Headspace app helpful.

9. Become aware of what helps you feel better. Whether it’s just for a few moments or for longer, become aware of what uniquely helps you via your senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste – to ease, reassure, and comfort yourself. Google the term “self-soothing” and you’ll find lots of ideas to try.

10. Believe that you, yourself, can do this. In addictions recovery circles, you may hear about admitting powerlessness, surrendering, relinquishing control, and the dangers of “self-will.” The opposite is true. The more self-aware you are and the more self-power you see yourself as having – the more “self-efficacy” you possess – the more likely you are to stay abstinent. You be you.

11. Practice “love love”  not “tough love” with yourself and others. “Tough love” is a euphemism for smiling while wielding a 2″ x 4″ of hostile methods to exert psychological control. Practice self-kindness and other-kindness. And distance yourself from those who profess to be treating you with the “tough love” they think you “need” or “deserve.” In fact, with the whole concept of “tough love,” practice hostility. But briefly. Then compassionately self-regulate and return your attention to recovery-enhancing stability.

Seek out supportive others

Seek out supportive others.

Handout 3

“…but seven years is long enough and all of us
deserve a visit now and then
to the house where we were born
before everything got written so far wrong”
– Peter Meinke, “Liquid Paper”

“The most natural way for human beings to calm themselves when they are upset is by clinging to another person.”
– Bessel van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score

“Do not attempt to take away a person’s main means of trying to cope with pain and suffering until you have another effective coping strategy in place.”
Alan Marlatt

“I don’t believe in getting ‘in the moment’ and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding ‘the moment.’ I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a ‘good man.’  But I am prepared to be an honorable one.”
Ta-Nehesi Coates

“It’s my life. Don’t you forget.”
Talk, Talk

1. Attach to yourself. Discover the curl within you of your truest self, “before everything got written so far wrong.” Gently begin to view yourself as someone with whom the vulnerable essence of you can feel safe. Many people with addiction have experienced abuse and neglect from caregivers  and have attachment challenges. What shouldn’t have happened did, and what should have happened didn’t. They may feel undeserving and unqualified to care for themselves. They may believe they can’t be entrusted with themselves and fear the piece-of-shit messages they’ve heard all their lives might be true. Given what many people have been through, having these beliefs is sadly understandable. Still. Kindly and protectively begin to identify yourself more by who you are, and less and less by what you’ve done or what has happened to you.

2. Take care of yourself. Try to imagine finding the truth of who you are showing up as a foster child on your doorstep right now. What do you need?! What do you want?! Remember the best of what you’ve learned, experienced and observed. Start with basic needs. Do you need to be invited in or given some time to adjust? Do you need something to eat, a nap, something interesting to do, a hug? Experiment and see what seems to work. What a huge responsibility! But what a relief! Finally, finally, after all that’s gone down, you can have your own consistent, kind, reliable, present, attentive caregiver who knows you better than anyone else on the planet and who wants the best for you, no matter what. And you don’t have to be a perfect self-caregiver. Good enough will do. Addiction – like life – is a 24-7 condition and other people aren’t always available to help. But you can be there for yourself. Whenever you need or want to, you can cling to your own good-enough self.

3. Seek out supportive others. Social connection can assist with abstinence. Stress and distress are part of human relationships, but the benefits of de-stressing need to outweigh the costs of stressing. No gathering with others will leave you stress-free. The goal is to find people with whom – enough of the time – you can feel good enough and safe enough to feel stable.

4. Try a variety of places and situations in which people gather in groups without use of problematic substances. Consider asking someone you trust to accompany you. Become aware of how you feel afterwards. If you feel neutral or better, you might return. If you feel worse, try another group, or, perhaps, try it a few more times and see. Keep visiting groups of any kind, whether recovery support groups, community groups, or hobby groups, until you find places that feel safe, supportive and helpful. If you don’t find established groups that are a fit for you, try to find individuals with whom you can meet one-on-one or in small, informal groups.

5. To further develop stability, establish priorities, schedules, routines and budgets. Figure out what you can do at the same time each day that’s helpful and do those things. Become aware of foods that fuel you and create a menu for yourself featuring those foods. Note which physical activities support your overall energy level throughout the day and do those. Figure out how much it costs to be you and find ways to supplement what’s missing and to modify spending for shortfalls. Discover the uniqueness that is you and set yourself up individually to thrive as only you would know, understand and be able to do.

6. Use “enough” vs. “all” as a standard. While you may want to examine your values, principles and beliefs more closely and decide what might work best for you individually going forward, for now, strive to get enough of your needs met enough of the time, to feel pretty good enough of the time, and to be with people with whom you usually feel safely supported. Since no one can deliver “all,” expecting all one’s needs to be met all of the time will result in disappointment which is stressful and destabilizing.

7. Stigma is real. Give yourself private time to take care of yourself and to feel better before you consider whether or not to share your condition with others. Keep your circle of confidantes thoughtfully selected and discuss your motivations and the pros and cons of self-disclosure with trusted others when you feel or think you might want to share your situation with others.

8. Approach the idea of “acceptance” gently. Research on wisdom posits “five integral components of wisdom: emotional regulation; humor; critical life experiences; reminiscence and life reflection.” Research on emotion regulation equates acceptance and regulation, i.e. rejecting what is upsets; accepting what is calms. Acceptance is not approval, agreement, or taking responsibility for what is or what happened. It’s just a simple acknowledgement: The grass is green, the sun is yellow, and what happened happened and what’s happening right now is happening. Attempting to force, demand, or will oneself into acceptance, or worse, attempting to submit or surrender to acceptance – especially when others behaved unacceptably, even heinously – results in pain. As Maia Szalavitz wrote, our brains need more love, not more pain. Practice radical self-kindness when considering the idea of acceptance, radical or otherwise.

9. You are a unique individual with an individual case of addiction. What helps you with your particular case will be unique to you. You are the expert on that and, ultimately, you are the decider. As you should be. Even if you have the regrettable condition of addiction, it’s still your life, your one precious life.

. . . . .

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is the founder of Handshake Media, Incorporated. She is a counselor and writer and lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The opinions expressed here the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of clients, employers, co-workers, family members or friends. This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Complex and Interacting Factors Predispose People to Addiction

Complex and interacting factors can predispose people to developing addiction, defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Genetics, psychology, psychiatry, and sociology are contributing to a more complicated understanding of how and why addiction develops in 1 in 7 people, or about 14%.

Detail of collage, Mary Wilson Burnette Giles, 1963

Genetics and Epigenetics

Genetics is well-known as the field that studies DNA, or the amino acid code that serves as a blueprint for living creatures. Epigenetics, being a newer sub-field of genetics, is rather less well-known. Epigenetics is a field examining the chemical compounds and proteins that attach to DNA, and influence how and whether the DNA is translated. For example, certain proteins can turn genes on or off, or modify how much protein is made from (i.e. translated from) a gene. Epigenetic changes often happen due to environmental influences throughout a person’s life, and are heritable.

An estimated 40-60% of addiction risk is genetic, but researchers don’t know yet which specific genes are at the root of the risk. This is in part because, in the case of addiction, each suspected gene has a very small influence, but all the genes together seem to have a very large influence. To identify all of the small influences of the individual genes would require experiments with very large sample sizes.

The question of which genetic factors predispose people to developing addiction is further complicated by epigenetics, such that a person’s risk may be increased or decreased depending on his or her environment. The drug itself, social interaction, or stressful life events can all alter a person’s epigenetics so that the person is at higher risk for addiction. Because of these interactions between genetics and environment, so far it is impossible to say exactly how much of addiction is due to nature (genetics/inherited epigenetics) and how much to nurture (environment/experiences). It is safe to say that people are or become predisposed to developing addiction, probably due to both genetic and epigenetic variables.

Mental Illnesses and Personality Disorders

People with addiction can have co-occurring mental illnesses and personality disorders, for which they may have been self-medicating when they developed addiction. Some of the genetic risk for addiction may be indirect, via a genetic risk for other disorders.

“In fact, the majority of genetic influence on substance use outcomes appears to be through a general predisposition that broadly influences a variety of externalizing disorders and is likely related to behavioral undercontrol and impulsivity, which is a heterogeneous construct in itself.”
Dick 2016

One study found that 28% of people with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) and 47.7% of people with drug use disorders had at least one personality disorder. Specifically, 18% of people with substance use disorders (SUDs) overall (including AUDs) have antisocial personality disorder, a rate more than four times that of the general population, which may be the source of the myth of the “addictive personality.”

Disorders that are commonly comorbid with addiction include:

  • Anxiety and mood disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Conduct disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder

When these disorders precede the development of addiction, they are said to be precursors, and may contribute to overall addiction risk. We cannot say yet, however, whether any of these precursors have definitive, causal influence in the development of addiction.

Trauma

PTSD is one of the disorders most commonly comorbid with addiction, and warrants special emphasis. The relationship between trauma and addiction is very strong, and trauma is suspected to be a causal influence in the development of addiction. An estimated 66% of people with SUDs have experienced trauma, and about half have PTSD.

Trauma may include emotional, sexual, or physical abuse, and is especially damaging for children. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are known to increase addiction risk, with children who have experienced 5 or more ACEs 7 to 10 times more likely to develop addiction. Even one ACE before the age of 15 doubles a child’s risk of addiction, based on a study of the population of Sweden. People who develop PTSD or experience trauma symptoms following community violence are also known to be at elevated risk for developing addiction.

Personality and Temperament

While there is no one addictive personality, certain personality and temperament traits are associated with higher rates of addiction.

“Yes, some stand out because they are antisocial and callous – but others stand out because they are overly moralistic and sensitive. While those who are the most impulsive and eager to try new things are at highest risk, the odds of addiction are also elevated in those who are compulsive and fear novelty. It is extremes of personality and temperament – some of which are associated with talents, not deficits – that elevates risk. Giftedness and high IQ, for instance, are linked with higher rates of illegal drug use than having average intelligence.”
Maia Szalavitz

Some of these personality traits may be or become severe enough to be diagnosable as a personality disorder, but in other cases a person may simply be prone to feeling anxious or hopeless, or being impulsive or sensation-seeking. These traits would also be accurately described as being precursors to addiction, possibly increasing addiction risk.

Attachment Security

Attachment theory has been studied for decades, beginning with research on infant-parent relationships, and expanding to research on adult relationships.

Attachment theory examines the quality of infant relationships with their caregivers, and correlates these relationships with the quality of relationships people have later in life. Basically, the more securely an infant bonds with a caregiver, the more secure that infant will feel in other relationships later in life.”
– Addiction Recovery with Others is Easier than Recovery Alone

Some theorize that addiction is an attachment disorder. Dr. Philip Flores is the founder of this idea, arguing that people with poor attachment are suffering from emotion regulation difficulties, and are essentially unable to regulate their self-esteem and relationships without healthy attachment. He posits that people suffering from insecure attachment use substance or behaviors to substitute for healthy relationships, which seem at first to help but ultimately exacerbate their problems.

We do not know whether Dr. Flores is correct, but we do know that insecure attachment styles are associated with addiction and with poor emotion regulation, as well as with other mental illnesses. Insecure attachment may therefore be considered to be another precursor to the development of addiction, in close association with the risk factors of co-occurring mental disorders.

Recently, researchers are exploring whether oxytocin (the neuropeptide and hormone thought to be responsible for social bonding) and social attachment may protect against addiction and stress. The neurological systems for stress coping and for social attachment overlap, and these researchers hypothesize that oxytocin is responsible for the transition people experience from wanting/searching for social attachment to liking/loving a person.

“The authors suggest that through dopaminergic, serotonergic and endogenous opioid mechanisms, oxytocin is involved in shifting the balance between wanting and liking in corticostriatal loops by facilitating consolidation of social information from ventral reactive reward systems to dorsal internal working models that aid in prospectively selecting optimal actions in the future, increasing resilience in the face of stress and addiction.”
Tops et al., 2014

Essentially, Tops et al. suspect that the process of developing familiarity and liking for other people, with the help of oxytocin, helps people to cope with stress, and makes them more resilient and less likely to become addicted.

Socioeconomic Influences

Poverty is a source of chronic stress, which may increase a person’s risk for mental illnesses. Fatal opioid overdose rates and emergency room visits are strongly correlated with unemployment rates, increasing 3.6% and 7% respectively for each 1% increase in unemployment. People in poverty are more likely to become addicted, in part because people in poverty are more likely overall to develop mental illnesses. Furthermore, mental illnesses may make it harder for a person to gain or keep employment and/or housing, which could lead to further or worsening poverty.

“Growing international evidence shows that mental ill health and poverty interact in a negative cycle in low-income and middle-income countries.”
Lund et al., 2011

Poverty is also known to have intergenerational influences, with chronic stress and poverty having epigenetic (therefore heritable) impacts on, for example, a person’s ability to cope with stress.

Other social-environmental influences may put someone at increased risk for addiction. For example, being surrounded by many people who use drugs tends to increase a person’s risk of developing an SUD, because the drugs are more available and people are more likely to use together more often. Furthermore, drug use in the home may result in more stressful situations, including poverty, that in turn put other people in the home at higher risk for addiction or other mental illnesses. Especially in cases of social isolation and poverty, such as in some rural areas of America, almost everyone in a community may develop addiction (e.g., the recent opioid epidemic).

Physiological Influences

Some people metabolize alcohol differently than others, and so are at higher risk for addiction. Some people are at heightened risk because of sleep disturbances or poor sleep quality. Others are at risk because of physical pain. People with physical disabilities, and/or traumatic brain injuries, are also known to be at higher risk for addiction. Women and men are equally likely to develop addiction, but sex, gender, race and ethnicity may influence the course addiction takes.

Developmental Stage

Adolescents are at higher risk for developing addiction, though many end up “aging out,” and recover on their own once their brains have developed. Human development is highly influenced by social environment, as well as genetics. If many of the above risk factors coincide with adolescence, a person is more likely to develop addiction.

Because of extreme variability in the precursors and predisposing conditions influencing the development of addiction, we may never have a one-size-fits-all treatment solution. By understanding all of the complex and interacting variables that predispose people to addiction, however, we can begin to determine which people are at highest risk, identify risks that we can mitigate, and create individualized treatment plans to ameliorate addiction, co-occurring mental and physical disorders, and life stressors.

Photo: Detail of collage, Mary Wilson Burnette Giles, 1963

This post was last updated 5/4/17.

A Packet of Evidence-Based Addictions Recovery Guidance

This post has been moved here.

 

Why 12-Step Approaches Are Not Evidence-Based as Addictions Treatment

When I read Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [1], I was surprised to see Twelve-Step Facilitation (TSF) included as an evidence-based behavioral treatment for addiction. I had just done a literature review on the efficacy of 12-step-based interventions [2], and found the evidence insufficient to support the prescription of 12-step groups as treatment. TSF is a standardized form of therapy where professional counselors try to engage their patients in participating actively in 12-step groups, in part by emphasizing 12-step philosophy during therapy sessions [3].

12-step folding chair

Twelve-step philosophy stipulates that addiction is a spiritual disease born of defects of character, and that 12-step groups are the only cure, involving faith in a higher power, prayer, confession, and admission of powerlessness. In contrast, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a disease of the brain – a medical condition requiring medical treatment [4]. A spiritual disease concept is not the same as a medical disease concept. Twelve-Step Facilitation treats addiction as a spiritual and biopsychosocial disease, retaining the spiritual emphasis of 12-step philosophy [5].

TSF was classified as a professional behavioral treatment in the Surgeon General’s Report. How can a professional, medical treatment be based on a definition of addiction as a spiritual disease? Baffled, I knew I would not be able to understand if I got stuck in bias against Twelve-Step Facilitation. I had studied the research on 12-step groups, but had only dipped my toe into the research on TSF. The Surgeon General’s Report cites hundreds of studies, and over a dozen in support of TSF. So, I did what all good scientists must do: I set aside my bias, knowing that if I want truth, I must assume first that I am wrong and dig deeper.

I conducted a preliminary literature review to investigate the effectiveness of TSF as a treatment, and then examined each of the sources the Surgeon General’s Report cited in support of TSF. I looked at the methodology, results, and conclusions for each. In this article, I define “evidence-based” to mean any treatment supported by numerous scientific experiments with rigorous methods that include control groups, randomization of patients to treatments, and bias-free samples. I use “12-step approaches” to refer to all 12-step-based rehab programs, TSF, and 12-step mutual help groups.

The key to understanding research on TSF is to know why the treatment was created in the first place. Researchers had documented an association between 12-step group attendance and abstinence, but association is not causation and research had been limited in several ways:

  • Studies evaluating the effectiveness of 12-step groups could not eliminate self-selection bias, which happens when group members are not randomly selected and participants opt in or select themselves, creating biased samples. The people participating in the studies had chosen to participate, and researchers could not determine whether successes observed were due to 12-step participation or qualities in the self-selected participants, such as greater motivation to enter recovery, more resources, or greater receptivity to messages of God, faith and/or acceptance. The people who chose not to participate, or who dropped out of the study, were not always accounted for. Researchers could not determine whether the association they observed between 12-step participation and abstinence was due to the treatment or to the characteristics of the people participating.
  • Twelve-step groups have no standardized methods or conditions. Leaders of the groups are often laypeople in recovery from addiction themselves. The quality of social support in the group depends on the people who are participating. The literature is interpreted by the members, who create their own cultures around the interpretation. Twelve-step cultures also pass around other information and advice, which may or may not permeate every group. Each sponsor is a different layperson in recovery from addiction, with different character traits. Researchers could not control for all of these variables all of the time.
  • Researchers struggled to maintain rigorous control groups throughout studies. At minimum, to determine whether 12-step groups have effect, researchers needed a no-treatment control group for each study. Ethically and logistically, they could not prevent people in the control groups from receiving treatment or from attending 12-step groups.

Twelve-Step Facilitation was developed by researchers working on Project MATCH, a well-known and extensive study funded by the National Institutes of Health. Project MATCH compared TSF to Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), seeking to establish what patient characteristics corresponded with the best results for each treatment. The study found there “was little difference in outcomes by type of treatment” based on the primary outcome measures of percent days abstinent and drinks per drinking day [6].

By standardizing methodology for TSF, Project MATCH made some headway on strengthening the quality of evidence, but they did not find a way around self-selection bias and they did not have a control group. Many patients, however, did drop out of the assigned treatments early on in the study. Two researchers later examined the outcomes of the zero-treatment dropout group, and found that “two-thirds to three-fourths of the improvement in the full treatment group was duplicated in the zero-treatment group” [7]. This means that the people in Project MATCH’s treatment groups did not have significantly better abstinence outcomes than the people who dropped out of the study. Importantly, we do not know whether the dropout group sought treatment on their own, and it seems probable that they did. Based on their analysis, none of the interventions in Project MATCH seem to be effective, but without an actual control group the results are equivocal regardless.

Some researchers have sought to re-analyze other parts of the Project MATCH data [8,9], but their findings, while supportive of TSF, are subject to the same methodological limitations of the parent study. Many other studies cited by the Surgeon General’s Report seem to support TSF as effective for improving abstinence outcomes [1014] and/or for relatively increasing 12-step participation compared to treatment as usual (TAU) [1520], but none of these studies had control groups. The Surgeon General’s Report cited one source in support of TSF that was actually an article reviewing information about 12-step programs to educate social workers, not an experimental study [21]. The Report also cited a study in support of TSF that examined two active referral interventions, 12-step peer intervention (PI) and doctor intervention (DI), compared to no intervention (NI). The study found that while the active referral interventions significantly increased participation in 12-step groups compared to no intervention, “abstinence rates did not differ significantly across intervention groups (44% [PI], 41% [DI] and 36% [NI])” [22]. This study was the only one cited in the Surgeon General’s Report in support of TSF that approximated a control group, and it does not actually support the efficacy of TSF in increasing abstinence outcomes. The NI pseudo-control group still received a list of 12-step group meeting times and locations, but was not encouraged to attend. The PI group attended meetings twice as much as the NI group, and yet the researchers found no significant difference in abstinence outcomes. The DI group, essentially TSF, was less effective than the PI group at increasing attendance, and again, did not significantly improve abstinence.

My own literature review turned up articles the Surgeon General’s Report did not reference, both in support of TSF [5,2328] and not supporting TSF [7,29,30], but none of the studies I found had control groups either. Results of my literature review, including my assessment of the Surgeon General’s report sources, were therefore as ambivalent as the 2006 Cochrane Review, a systematic meta-study of all 12-step-based programs that found that, “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or TSF approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems” [31]. A more recent systematic review by the Campbell Collaboration found evidence on 12-step approaches for other drug use disorders to be weak as well, with only 9 studies meeting all of their inclusion criteria. What evidence they did find indicated no difference between 12-step approaches and other psychosocial interventions in reducing illegal drug use, and some evidence that 12-step approaches have higher dropout rates than other interventions [32]. Researchers have not been able to methodologically eliminate self-selection bias, and most often fail to utilize adequate controls in their studies of 12-step groups and TSF.

One study to date attempted to use instrumental variables models, a recently developed statistical method, to determine what percentage of increased 12-step group attendance can be attributed to TSF without self-selection bias [33]. The researchers, Humphries et al. 2014, re-analyzed data from 5 randomized clinical trials, though none of these clinical trials had control groups. They determined that TSF did significantly increase participation in 12-step groups for people who had not previously participated much or at all, though not for people who already had high levels of participation. Their methods were inadequate for determining whether increased participation is causally linked to increased abstinence, or whether increases in abstinence occurred without self-selection bias.

My review answers a question that cannot be answered by simply counting the number of studies apparently supporting or not supporting 12-step approaches like TSF. Are 12-step approaches evidence-based for treating addiction – supported by numerous scientific experiments with rigorous methods that include control groups, randomization of patients to treatments, and bias-free samples? No, 12-step approaches are not evidence-based, because no studies decisively demonstrate their effectiveness. In fact, research on 12-step approaches faces insurmountable obstacles. Practically speaking, researchers cannot ethically design and conduct experiments that eliminate self-selection bias and utilize adequate controls.

In medical science, if a treatment is ineffective or faces prohibitive methodological challenges, the treatment is either revised or abandoned. Twelve-step philosophy prohibits either approach. Twelve-step literature is comparable to the Bible for Christians or the Qur’an for Muslims; if the literature is removed, the identity of the group goes with it. The same basic text has been used for AA since the publication of its “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, in 1939. Twelve-step literature also explicitly states that, “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average” [34]. Twelve-step philosophy, by taking this position, is asserting that its methods can never be wrong. If the 12 Steps do not work for people, 12-step philosophy explicitly states it is their fault, and that the fault is inborn and irreversible. The 12 Steps and attendant literature, however, are not modified.

Research does support the concept that changing “people, places, and things” and finding a network of people with a culture of abstinence can improve chances of recovery [35]. However, mutual help groups other than 12-step groups do exist that may provide the social support needed by people in recovery. A study by Zemore et al. [36], compared the relative, personal satisfaction of participants in 12-step groups vs. 12-step alternatives: SMART Recovery, LifeRing, and Women For Sobriety. The study did not examine abstinence or drinking/using outcomes among participants, but interviewed all participants on demographics, level of participation in their mutual help group (MHG) of choice, and level of satisfaction and group cohesion they experienced in their MHG. They found that, “despite lower levels of in-person meeting attendance, members of all the 12-step alternatives showed equivalent activity involvement and higher levels of satisfaction and cohesion, compared to 12-step members.” The participants who engaged in alternative MHGs tended to be less religious, and to have higher levels of education and income. The study demonstrates that alternative MHGs not only exist, but are of comparable efficacy in terms of social support. People who are not religious may be able to make 12-step groups work for them as social support if they have no other choices [37], but other options will most often be available.

Social support may be subjectively helpful as an individual seeks medical treatment, but ultimately medical treatment is necessary to ameliorate disorder symptoms. Social support is also not sufficient to prevent addiction from developing. Researchers using statistical analysis to determine whether social support and social networks reduced the odds of developing AUD following stressful life events and chronic stressors, among other disorders, found no statistically significant effect of social support or networks on later rates or effects of AUD [38].

A study in 2001 by Humphreys and Moos [39] found that TSF may reduce health care costs for people in recovery by emphasizing reliance on free 12-step groups, as opposed to cognitive behavioral therapy. Yet their conclusions that the study indicates people should be diverted from CBT to TSF because it is ultimately cheaper amounts to advocating malpractice. TSF itself is not free and is not decisively supported by evidence; twelve-step groups, while free, are not evidence-based or treatment, and other available mutual help groups are equally free options for social support. Even if TSF were demonstrably effective at promoting abstinence for some people, 12-step philosophy is heavily spiritual (specifically Christian-based), so it would be unethical to recommend TSF simply because it might save money.

In Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction [40], Maia Szalavitz, citing Anne M. Fletcher’s Inside Rehab: The Surprising Truth About Addiction Treatment–and How to Get Help That Works [41], reports that 12-step approaches are “a required curriculum” in 80% of American addiction treatment programs. Many addictions treatment facilities state that that they are 12-step based. Based on my literature review, that means that these facilities are not offering effective, evidence-based treatment.

After extensive research, I assert with confidence that 12-step approaches are not evidence-based treatments. They may be strong recovery support options for people to choose in addition to a medical treatment plan, but 12-step approaches—including TSF—are not established as evidence-based for treating addiction. Due to the methodological limitations identified in this article, I question continuing to spend thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and limited expertise on researching a spiritually-based treatment for addiction that cannot be proven to be effective for most people most of the time compared to “spontaneous,” or natural, remission rates. It is time to relegate 12-step approaches to the realm of recovery support services (RSS, as defined in the Surgeon General’s Report) and allocate our research resources to promising treatments that can be studied rigorously and without such crippling methodological limitations.

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  40. Szalavtiz, M. (2016) Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
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Laurel Sindewald is a writer and researcher for Handshake Media, IncorporatedAnne Giles contributed to this report.

A version of this report was originally published by The Fix as “AA Is Not Evidence-Based Treatment” on 3/16/17. We broaden the scope, update with the latest research, and provide full citations using APA style guidelines. We will continue to update the report as new research warrants. This report was last updated on 6/23/17.

After the Shootings: Community Violence, Collective Trauma and Addiction

It’s Fourth of July in a small town in America, and people of all ages and races, classes and creeds are gathered in a park for the fireworks display. People in lawn chairs are chatting over drinks. Here and there people are stretched out on old blankets or beach towels, reading or scrolling through Facebook. Kids are tearing up and down the playground equipment, playing with glowsticks or laughing at gravity on the swings. Everywhere the people breath deep and smell wafting barbecue above fresh grass, spiced with smoke from exhausted sparklers.

The community seems happy with the warmth of summer, and nothing around could show you the difference between this town and so many other small towns in America. But the people of this town have been changed. One April ten years ago, someone walked onto the local college campus, entered a building and locked the doors, killed 32 people and wounded 17 before committing suicide.

About 500 people are gathered to see the fireworks. Because of that violent event, research suggests that 75 of those gathered are suffering symptoms of trauma severe enough to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Statue on Virginia Tech Campus

Photo: “The Garden Sprite” statue on Virginia Tech Campus in the Hahn Horticulture Garden, a rendition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Maid in the Mud”

Mass shootings are one type of community violence, a term that includes terrorist attacks, riots, gang wars, workplace assaults, torture, bombings, war, and many other acts of violence. Community violence has far-reaching effects very different from some other forms of trauma, and impacts people who may not have been directly present at the violent event.

“Several aspects of community violence make it different from other types of trauma. Although there are warnings for some traumas, community violence usually happens without warning and comes as a sudden and terrifying shock. Because of this, communities that suffer from violence often experience increased fear and a feeling that the world is unsafe and that harm could come at any time. Although some traumas only affect one individual or a small group of people, community violence can permanently destroy entire neighborhoods. Finally, although some types of trauma are accidental, community violence is intentional, which can lead survivors to feel an extreme sense of betrayal and distrust toward other people.”
– Hamblen and Goguen, US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016

An estimated 1015% of people who experience community violence report severe PTSD symptoms afterward. (Researchers estimate that 15-30% of people in the Blacksburg community experienced PTSD symptoms after the Virginia Tech shootings.)

Risk factors include female gender, proximity to the violence, knowing victims of the violence, pre-existing psychological conditions, emotion regulation difficulties, anxiety sensitivity, and low social support (Lowe and Galea, 2017; Bardeen et al., 2013; Grills-Taquechel et al., 2011; Stephenson et al., 2009; Scarpa et al., 2006Norris et al., 2002; North et al., 1994). The mental health effects include “psychological distress and clinically significant elevations in posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms in relation to the degree of physical exposure and social proximity to the shooting incident” (Schultz et al., 2014).

Researchers report that people in the surrounding community may also experience these effects, even if they did not witness the violence first-hand. For example, people who experience stronger emotional reactions, regardless of proximity, are at higher risk for later PTSD symptoms.

“For some people it’s water off a duck’s back. Some people are drowning.”
– Anne Giles, private interview

People who were unable to contact or locate loved ones during the Virginia Tech shootings were subject to trauma symptoms, even years later, as Victoria Sagstetter discovered.

“As an English teacher, she found herself re-reading student poems that seemed unusually dark, looking for the kind of clues Cho left behind in his writings before his killing spree.”
Jacob Demmitt of The Roanoke Times

After the Virginia Tech shootings, 4.5 years went by before some people sought treatment for trauma. Among the mental health effects people experience after trauma are substance use disorders (SUDs) and other addictions. The connection between trauma and addiction is well-documented, and current research indicates that trauma is a causal factor leading to addiction.

“Consistent with the self-medication hypothesis, the theory that people use substances to cope with psychological distress, PTSD tends to precede and predict SUD.”
Trauma and Addiction: Common Origins and Integrated Treatment

About 34% of people diagnosed with PTSD also suffer from addiction, and about two-thirds of people with addiction have experienced past trauma. Therefore, of the revelers at the Fourth of July celebration, an estimated 25 are at risk for developing addiction due to the event of community violence alone.

If people have experienced other traumatic events in their lives, as 1 in 4 American children have (CDC 2014; Felitti et al., 1998), they will be at even higher risk for addiction. For example, women who had experienced sexual trauma prior to the Virginia Tech shootings reported significantly more depressive symptoms, shooting-related PTSD, and lower belief in benevolence and family support.

“Maia Szalavitz, in her book Unbroken Brain, reports that, ‘Even just one extreme adversity – like losing a parent or witnessing domestic violence – before age 15 doubles the odds of substance use disorders, according to a study of the entire Swedish population’ (Unbroken Brain, 65).”
– Trauma and Addiction: Common Origins and Integrated Treatment

The estimated 75 people with trauma and 25 people with addiction watching the fireworks display are therefore a low estimate of the true risk for trauma and addiction in this small American town. Trauma and addiction are already very likely to occur, and an event of community violence such as the mass shootings in this community means trauma and addiction are almost certain to happen.

After community violence happens, everyone should be screened for trauma. (If resources are limited, those exhibiting risk factors should be prioritized, as should those with pre-existing disorders that put them at higher risk for addiction.) Community members must be aware that their friends and family and neighbors are at risk for developing addiction, and that if they do, they need treatment not tough love.

Some variables are known to reduce the risk of PTSD (and therefore addiction) after community violence. If a person has a belief in his or her ability to handle the trauma, i.e., self-efficacy, he or she will be less likely to experience PTSD symptoms. After community violence, in-person social support is known to mitigate resource loss (social or physical) and compensate for low levels of self-efficacy, reducing PTSD risk (Warner et al., 2015; Hawdon et al., 2012; Littleton et al., 2009). Specifically, sharing about thoughts and emotions with others may attenuate PTSD risk, but sharing bare facts will likely not help, and may increase the risk of developing PTSD.

“Thus, it is argued here that efforts to reduce risk and resource inequities, engage local people in mitigation, create organizational linkages, boost and protect social supports, cultivate trusted and responsible information resources, and enhance decision-making skills will augment more specific intervention efforts to promote safety, calming, efficacy, hope, and connectedness in the aftermath of mass trauma.”
Norris and Stevens, 2007

People in a community have a choice to make after community violence. What they choose determines how long and how badly the violence continues to affect their community. People who come together, in person, to share thoughts and feelings about the violence during and after it occurs are less likely to suffer from PTSD and addiction in the future. People who continue to come together, who recognize that some of their friends and neighbors will inevitably be suffering, and who affirm their own and others’ abilities to cope with the violence will be more likely to heal.

Let’s say you’re sitting on a towel on the 4th of July in that small town, surrounded by your friends and neighbors as the fireworks begin. You share, together, openly and shamelessly, about the trauma or addiction with which you may struggle.  In a special place created by “safety, calming, efficacy, hope, and connectedness,” you may start to feel a little bit better.

Author’s note: To estimate the number of people in my imagined 500 likely to develop PTSD, I reviewed the literature. One source estimated 10-15%, another estimated 15.4%, and a third estimated 15-30% of people who experience a mass shooting (directly or indirectly) develop PTSD. I chose 15% as a conservative estimate, because I do not have access to the data sets for each of these three sources. I multiplied 500 by 0.15, and arrived at my estimate of 75 people at high risk for PTSD in my imagined gathering of 500.

To estimate the number of people in my imagined 500 likely to develop addiction, I again reviewed the literature and found that 34% of people diagnosed with PTSD also have addiction. I multiplied 75 by 0.34 to arrive at 25 estimated people with addiction in the gathering of 500. One may also multiply 0.15 by 0.34 to obtain 0.05, or 5%, and multiply the full 500 by 0.05, again equaling 25 people at risk for addiction.

In a gathering of 500 people who experienced community violence, 15% are at risk for PTSD, or 75, and 5% are at risk for addiction, or 25 – due to the event of community violence alone.

PDF of Research Excerpts

Photo: Laurel Sindewald, statue, Hahn Horticulture Garden, Virginia Tech

A personal note from Anne Giles, added 4/5/17: I am one among a likely cohort of 300 who developed addiction in Blacksburg, Virginia after the Virginia Tech shootings. Of the 40,000+ people living in Blacksburg in 2007, research predicts 15% of them would develop PTSD. That would be 6,000. Of that 6,000, research predicts 5% would develop addiction. That’s 300.

Handshake Media maintains a list of addiction recovery resources for people living in the Blacksburg, Virginia area.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Insights After Reporting on Addiction for 3.5 Years

I felt that paradox of shock and recognition that shadows the human experience of time when I realized I had been writing and researching on addiction for Handshake Media, Inc. for 3.5 years.

Laurel Sindewald waves to leave at Maia Szalavitz's visit to Blacksburg, VA

Anne Giles and I have worked diligently together on investigating and reporting on addiction. I have felt like a detective, or a mythbuster. Anne, in her work as an addictions treatment advocate, would come across a new concept or quandary, or a common belief about addiction, and she would task me with investigating. While researching and writing for Handshake Media, I have authored 26 articles on addiction and addictions treatment. After hundreds of hours of research over the past 3.5 years, Anne asked me these questions.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a disorder or disease of the brain, of varying severity, that compromises willpower and executive functions, sensitizes the brain’s stress system, and desensitizes the reward system. Addiction is defined by a person’s inability to stop a behavior despite negative consequences.

What causes addiction?

Addiction happens when a combination of risk factors (e.g., genetics, past trauma, attachment style, co-occurring disorders, and a poor socioeconomic support system) coincide with a person’s use of substances or behaviors regularly to cope with stressful situations in place of other emotion regulation strategies.

What treats addiction?

Each person requires a personalized treatment plan based on his or her individual situation, developed in consultation with his or her doctor. Three main components can be listed, however, that are often helpful for most people most of the time for recovery from addiction.

  1. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). Foremost, medications are available that directly or indirectly treat the brain problems that develop with addiction. Counseling is not required for treatment of addiction with medications to be effective.
  2. Individual or Group Counseling. Adherence to medical treatment in general averages to around 50%, and addiction is likely no exception. Counseling may help people stick with a treatment plan, and to meet their abstinence or harm-reduction goals. People with substance use disorders (the medical term for addiction) may also need assistance with developing new emotion regulation skills and strategies to replace the behaviors and/or substances they previously used when stressed. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are two treatment options available, and may be especially helpful for people with co-occurring disorders. We don’t know whether counseling directly affects the changes in the brain resulting from addiction, but by supporting abstinence or harm reduction, counseling may play an important part in indirectly affecting those brain changes over time.
  3. Recovery Support Services (RSS). RSS is not actually treatment, but may be helpful in supporting people in recovery. Some people find support groups (also known as Mutual Help Groups or MHGs) to be helpful for social support in building a new recovery lifestyle. While 12-step groups are the most common support groups available, they are not for everyone, and they are not the only option. SMART Recovery is a secular, CBT-based support group teaching concrete skill sets to help people reduce or stop any kind of behavior. RSS is not limited to MHGs, however, and may include legal, housing, or nutritional assistance, and help with dependent care.

Is addiction a condition that would benefit from healing? Can it be healed?

Yes, addiction is a condition that benefits from healing because there are brain changes involved that require medications to stabilize, and eventually alter them. The term “healing” also implies an element of long-term care, which is helpful because the brain changes involved in addiction happened over time, and new changes also require time.

Addiction can be healed, and remission is considered stable after 5 years. Much as a habit or learned behavior can eventually be changed, an addiction can be changed too, but requires a deal of time and patience with mulligans and suffering. The brain networks of connection will always be there (one never forgets how to ride a bike or drive a car), but over time other networks will be stronger or will predominate.

Why do some people with addiction behave badly?

I believe people with addictions who behave badly are suffering – in pain – and do not know how to cope with that pain or adequately express it. When they use a substance, their ability to make decisions is further compromised and they are unable to stop or control the behavior. As addiction progresses, they lose more executive function in the brain and are unable to stop or control behavior, whether they are presently using the drug or not.

What might prevent people with addiction who behave badly from doing so again?

I think that first of all, people with addiction require a medical treatment plan for a brain condition involving medication and counseling as individually required. All co-occurring disorders must also be treated appropriately, and past trauma if in evidence. People with addiction may need help with an action plan to regulate emotion when they are upset, instead of using. Many people may require socioeconomic support, legal defense, and job training to have better lives in recovery.

I believe people with addiction also need compassion and forgiveness from those they love, even if harm has been done. Tough love is not helpful, and may worsen a person’s addiction. If a person is constantly focused on repenting for past deeds or making amends, how can he or she focus on the full-time self-care required to prevent a relapse, much less to build a new life worth living? I believe forgiveness frees a person to stop self-punishment for past actions, and to instead practice self-love and self-care.

I know that my position of compassion for people with substance use disorders is fairly uncommon, because unfortunately, addiction often has concussive effects on families and communities for generations. People who are close to people with addictions may be physically or emotionally abused, stolen from, cheated on, molested, raped, or otherwise traumatized – trust broken. People are suffering who did their best to help their loved ones with addiction, over and over, and yet those loved ones behaved incomprehensibly, cruelly, despite all efforts.

The elephant in the room of addiction is raw suffering, and hopeless defeat.

My position comes from these years of research, and hard-won experience, knowing and loving people with one or more addictions who hurt me or other people I love. Yet, while my personal experience tallies with the research I’ve done, it’s the research that I rely on when I report on addiction. Good research is based on careful methodology, transparency about funding and potential bias, and conservative conclusions from carefully-analyzed data. The research I have reviewed, compiled, and reported on pulls together information about hundreds of thousands of cases of addiction. Any experiences I have are singular data points, and only helpful when viewed as a very small, biased sample of the whole, complex picture.

So, what do I advocate after 3.5 years of research and reporting no addiction?

I strongly advocate compassionate delivery of evidence-based treatment, a focus on harm reduction rather than abstinence, dollars allocated toward treatment and not punishment or incarceration, and love-love for people with addiction—never tough-love.

Photo from Maia Szalavitz’s visit to Blacksburg, Virginia

Why Opioid Maintenance Does Not Replace One Addiction with Another

Opioid addiction has been declared a national epidemic in America. President Obama called for $1.1 billion in new funding for opioid addiction treatment and research early in 2016.

Opioids are drugs that relieve physical and emotional pain. Opioids include opiates, which is an older term for drugs derived from opium, such as morphine. Common opioids include prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, hydrocodone, Percocet, methadone and Vicodin, as well as drugs like morphine and heroin. Opioids cause a rush of dopamine in the brain, conditioning the brain over time and altering pathways dealing with pleasure, memory, learning, and decision-making.

With continued use, the human body develops tolerance to opioids, which means the body no longer responds to the drugs unless the dose is increased. A person with a highly developed opioid tolerance may take doses to get high that would be lethal for a person without an opioid tolerance.

Unfortunately, people taking opioids illicitly may have an irregular supply, causing their tolerance to fluctuate. Illegal opioids are also of variable potency, and may be laced with stronger, faster-acting opioids like fentanyl. The combination of fluctuating tolerance and unpredictable potency creates a dangerous situation for people using illicit opioids. For example, someone using heroin whose tolerance has dropped may inject what they think is a manageable dose of heroin, not knowing it is laced with fentanyl; the added potency and reduced tolerance could cause an overdose, and this person could be at risk of dying.

Since 2000, opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. have increased 200%.

A nuanced discussion rather than a black-and-white debate

Some discussions about opioid maintenance involve black-and-white/good-or-bad thinking. Let’s explore the nuances of how opioid maintenance works for people with opioid addictions.

Why Opioid Maintenance Treatments Are the Best We Have

The opioid epidemic is alarming especially because so many people with families, dreams, and skills – like anyone else – are affected. People with opioid addictions are taxpayers and citizens of many races, religions, and backgrounds; they are people and they are valuable. How can we prevent them from dying?

Addiction is defined by NIDA as a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by repeated behavior despite negative consequences. Relapse rates for addiction are comparable to other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension.

Given that relapse is likely and given that reduced tolerance is a primary risk factor for fatal overdose, it follows that maintaining tolerance would reduce overdose deaths. Sure enough, scientific research on opioid maintenance shows that stable doses of full or partial opioid agonists (drugs that completely or partially activate opioid receptors) maintain tolerance and reduce risk of death if a relapse occurs.

“If we really want to stop the overdose epidemic, we need to get serious about providing the only treatment known to reduce the death rate by 50 percent to 70 percent or more: indefinite, potentially lifelong, maintenance on a legal opioid drug like methadone or buprenorphine. The data on maintenance is clear. If you increase access to it, deathcrime and infectious disease drop; if you cut it short, all of those harms rise.”
– Maia Szalavitz, The public scorns the addiction treatment Prince was going to try. They shouldn’t.

How Opioid Maintenance Works

“The principle behind MAT is this: Because opioid addiction permanently alters the brain receptors, taking the drug completely out of someone’s system can leave them less able to naturally cope with physical or emotional stress…”
– Maia Szalavitz

Two drugs are supported by scientific evidence as effective opioid maintenance treatments: buprenorphine, and methadone. A continuous, prescribed dose of either buprenorphine or methadone prevents people from experiencing withdrawals, stabilizes them in recovery, and reduces risk of fatal overdose. These medications do this by maintaining tolerance to opioids. People who are in opioid maintenance programs are not high when they take doses as prescribed (also because of tolerance), and are quite capable of driving a vehicle, going to work, providing childcare, and otherwise living life. Pregnant women who are addicted to opioids are advised to take buprenorphine (Subutex) to stabilize themselves and their babies until delivery.

Buprenorphine

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, which means that it binds to opioid receptors in the brain with only partial efficacy compared to full agonists (like morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl). Effects of buprenorphine also have a ceiling dose, beyond which higher doses have no effect. This ceiling effect also means overdose from buprenorphine is less likely. Buprenorphine also affects the mμ receptor, which reduces the effects of additional opioid use.

Because it is safer than methadone, buprenorphine can be prescribed by physicians as pills or sublingual films, often under the brand names Suboxone or Subutex. Subutex is buprenorphine alone, while Suboxone also contains naloxone, an opioid antagonist. Suboxone was created to discourage misuse. When Suboxone is taken orally as directed, the opioid partial-agonist effects of buprenorphine predominate. If Suboxone is injected, however, the naloxone blocks opioid receptors and prevents the person from getting high. In an opioid dependent individual, the naloxone precipitates withdrawal effects.

Methadone

Methadone is a full opioid agonist, and does not have ceiling effects like buprenorphine. For this reason, it is considered to have higher misuse potential and is only administered by SAMHSA-certified opioid treatment programs, usually methadone clinics. However, a 2014 Cochrane review of studies comparing methadone and buprenorphine determined that people are less likely to drop out of methadone programs.

Given the complexity of addiction, and the complexity of factors uniquely affecting each person, individuals with addiction need individualized treatment. Only the individual, in consultation with one or more physicians well-educated in opioid use disorder and its treatment, may decide.

“Extensive literature and systematic reviews show that maintenance treatment with either methadone or buprenorphine is associated with retention in treatment, reduction in illicit opiate use, decreased craving, and improved social function. … Further work is needed to directly compare each medication and determine individual factors that can assist in medication selection. Until such time, selection of medication should be based on informed choice following a discussion of outcomes, risks, and benefits of each medication.
Dr. Gavin Bart, 2012 (Emphasis added)

How Opioid Maintenance Treatments Discourage Misuse

Just as it is impossible to eliminate all supplies of illegal drugs, law enforcement and treatment providers cannot wholly prevent diversion and misuse of buprenorphine or methadone. In fact, in trying to reduce misuse of buprenorphine, authorities have restricted access to buprenorphine maintenance treatment, limiting the number of buprenorphine patients a doctor can treat at any one time.

Still, treatment providers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, legislators, and law enforcement continue to try to limit the potential negative impacts of opioid maintenance treatments. Methadone, for example, is only given in take-home doses if patients can provide drug-free urine for several months.

However, because Suboxone can be diverted to people who were not prescribed the medication, it can still be misused. People who do not have a tolerance for opioids can still get high on Suboxone, up to the ceiling effect. Arguably, it’s a safer high than heroin because it is less likely to cause fatal overdose, but it’s still an illegal high.

In this case, as citizens, we have to weigh the risks of the diversion of partial agonist, buprenorphine, with full agonists like heroin, morphine, fentanyl, and oxycodone. If the goal is to reduce overdose deaths and crime associated with the opioid epidemic, buprenorphine will remain an important tool despite diversion.

Why People Dependent on Drugs Are Not Addicted

People taking medicine for depression, diabetes, and many other chronic illnesses become physically, literally dependent on their drugs to stay healthy. In most of these cases, however, these people are not addicted to their medicines. Even chronic pain patients, who become physically dependent on their painkillers and suffer withdrawals without them, typically do not develop addiction – only 8-12% of chronic pain patients become addicted to pain medication.

Dependence and addiction are very different, and understanding this may sometimes make the difference between life and death. Addiction is defined by persisting in a behavior despite negative consequences. People who are only dependent on a drug suffer withdrawals, and are then free to continue their lives – they do not go looking for more of the drug or persist despite negative consequences. People who are dependent and addicted, however, will continue to seek the drug even after withdrawals are over.

In the case of opioid addiction, people are still at risk for relapse after withdrawals are through, and may die from a relapse if their tolerance drops. To treat opioid addiction, rather than only opioid dependence, opioid maintenance treatment – recommended by the World Health Organization, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and others to be continued indefinitely, perhaps life-long – is necessary to keep people stable and to prevent fatal overdoses.

How Opioid Maintenance Disrupts Addiction Patterns

Addiction happens when people at risk due to trauma history, mental illness and other factors take a drug which they are predisposed to experience as extraordinarily rewarding. In the brain, when a person has an exciting new experience, the reward system responds with a release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters telling us it’s something we want to do again. Certain drugs are more likely to cause a magnified reward response in the brain, releasing far more dopamine than ordinary experiences.

The reward system helps people to learn which experiences are good and which are bad. Because some people biologically experience some drugs as more rewarding than anything else, they learn to associate the drug, and any cues relating to its use (paraphernalia, locations, people, symbols) with immense reward. Their brains begin to respond to the cues, more even than the drug itself, which reinforces use.

Opioid maintenance does not involve the cues to which people with opioid addictions respond. Commuting to a methadone clinic is very different from shooting up heroin. Receiving one dose of Suboxone from a designated family member is very different from self-administering indefinite pills. The “people, places, and things” associated with use are changed when a person enters opioid maintenance. Opioid maintenance treatment helps keep neurocognitive cravings and physiological withdrawals at bay while the person rebuilds his or her life to remove cues for use.

In this way, opioid maintenance disrupts the addiction pattern of cue > pursuit of drug > use. Essentially, opioid maintenance attempts to replace an addiction with simpler dependence, rather than with another addiction. The difference between physical dependence and addiction is crucial to understanding why opioid maintenance does not replace one addiction with another.

How Opioid Maintenance Supports Healthy Recovery

At this point, it may seem overly simple to say that because opioid maintenance prevents people from dying, it supports lives in recovery. Still, this is a key truth. Beyond keeping people alive, opioid maintenance allows people to find enough stability to build new lives in recovery.

Many people believe that a person must abstain completely from all drugs in order to truly be in recovery. However, if a person in recovery from addiction needed medical treatment for diabetes and were prescribed insulin, that person would certainly not be expected to abstain from insulin for the ideal of abstinence. Nor would a person refuse needed antibiotics on the principle that they must not take any drugs if they are to be in recovery. Opioid maintenance is no different from these examples of medication for medical necessity.

A person in opioid maintenance treatment is not high. The steady dose of a partial or full-agonist opioid basically establishes a “new normal” biologically – biochemically – without which normalcy is disrupted. A person with depression who benefits from an anti-depressant is said to have a chemical imbalance, which is stabilized by the anti-depressant. Similarly, a person with an opioid addiction has a chemical imbalance from chronic opioid use, and may be unstable without some level of continued opioid administration.

People in recovery from opioid addictions will still need to do everything a healthy person must do to survive and succeed, such as keep a job, pay bills, provide child, pet, or elder care, or maintain a household. In order to be stable enough to manage all of these challenges and the attendant stress, people in recovery from opioid addictions need access to opioid maintenance.

To Sum it Up

  • People with opioid addictions are at risk of dying. As health professionals, concerned citizens, or families and friends, we owe it to people with opioid addictions to do what we can to prevent this.
  • Buprenorphine/methadone maintenance is the only evidence-based treatment that reduces death risk by 50%. To prescribe other treatments without considering maintenance is, frankly, malpractice.
  • People are not high when taking buprenorphine or methadone as prescribed. Opioids produce tolerance in the human body, such that consistent doses no longer make the person high.
  • Opioid maintenance treatments include measures to prevent or discourage misuse. Buprenorphine, as a partial agonist, has a “ceiling” dose, beyond which further amounts have no effect. Suboxone discourages injection misuse by the action of naloxone, which precipitates withdrawal symptoms in opioid dependent individuals. Methadone is primarily delivered in controlled, daily doses in a clinical setting.
  • Addiction is different from dependence. Addiction involves a learned behavior that continues despite negative consequences. Dependence is only the body’s physical adjustment to a drug, and can happen without addiction. Unlike addiction, dependence does not involve persisting in use despite negative consequences.
  • Maintenance disrupts addiction because doses are not rewarding and are not associated with addiction cues. People in opioid maintenance programs are receiving their stable doses of methadone or buprenorphine under very different circumstances than their usual addiction-related rituals. By disrupting the patterns of addiction and providing doses that are not rewarding (do not get the person high), maintenance maintains tolerance and dependence without maintaining or creating addiction.
  • Indefinite maintenance allows people to focus on improving their lives in recovery. Opioid maintenance treatments allow people to lead lives in recovery without worrying about coping with withdrawal symptoms or risking fatal overdose. In the event of a relapse, people can focus on learning which cues to avoid next time – how to prevent another relapse – rather than recovering from a severe overdose or dying.

Further reading:

Why We Have Wait Lists for Opioid Addiction Treatment

What the Opioid Epidemic Means in Virginia

How Ithaca, NY is Addressing America’s Opioid Epidemic

Addiction or Dependence: A Life and Death Difference

How to Talk with Someone About Getting Help with Addiction

This post was last updated on 10/27/16.

Addiction or Dependence: A Life and Death Difference

In the 1980s, when addiction science professionals sat down to agree on terminology for the DSM-IV, the room decided by only one vote to call addiction “dependence.” The issue did not rest there. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, labels addictions as “substance use disorders,” because “dependence” does not quite cover what addiction really is.

Addiction and Dependence : Apples and Oranges

Dependence is when a person becomes physically reliant on a substance, and experiences withdrawals without it. While dependence often happens as addiction develops, full addiction is much more complex, and is defined by continuing to use drugs or engage in behaviors despite negative consequences.

As an example, physical dependence can happen with many different medications. People who take antidepressants, for example, become dependent on them and undergo withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking the medications. In this case, these patients are dependent on antidepressants but are not addicted to them, and antidepressants are not considered to be addictive.

People in pain go to their doctors for relief, take pain medicine as prescribed, and if they take it long enough, their bodies get used to the medication, expect it, and throw a fit without it. When (if) their chronic or acute pain is over, doctors know to taper patients from pain medicine if physical dependence happens, and to treat withdrawal symptoms to ease the process. The patients may or may not know they are feeling sick because of withdrawal, but if they are otherwise happy in their lives they won’t bother with trying to find opioids illegally on the streets.

They do not persist in using the drug despite negative consequences, which defines addiction. They were dependent on the drug, but not addicted to it.

(Note: Among pain patients prescribed pain medication, only 8-12% develop addiction. Maia Szalavitz reports for Scientific American that “75 percent of all opioid misuse starts with people using medication that wasn’t prescribed for them—obtained from a friend, family member or dealer.”)

Addiction develops in 10-20% of people when multiple risk factors coincide with drug use (whether prescribed or recreational). If people have genetic predispositions, a history of trauma, and/or mental illness(es), they will be vulnerable to developing addiction. Even for these individuals, addiction takes time as they learn to associate the substance or activity with pleasure or relief, and the absence of the substance or activity with misery.

Individuals addicted to opioids are usually also physically dependent on them. Often a first line of treatment is to enter people with opioid substance use disorders into detox, where withdrawal symptoms may be treated while the person is monitored by medical staff. What happens next unfortunately depends on which doctor is managing the case (not all treatments are equally effective).

But to whatever treatment they are referred, individuals with opioid use disorder are at risk for relapse long after withdrawal symptoms are gone. This is why addictions, or substance use disorders, are very different from physical dependence. Once a person has gone through withdrawals and been abstinent from the substance for a period of time, the body readjusts and is no longer dependent on the substance. But people with substance use disorders still crave the drug.

Moreover, with certain drugs, like opioids, the body builds up tolerance with repeated use, which means the drug no longer affects the body unless the dose is increased. When a person enters a period of abstinence, their tolerance drops substantially.

Sadly, people with opioid use disorders often relapse and die when trying abstinence-based treatment, because they’re still addicted and their tolerance is gone. When they take the opioid at their usual dose, they overdose. What was once an okay amount is now fatal. Buprenorphine and methadone maintenance are recommended to keep people alive by keeping tolerance stable (without being high). Life-long maintenance may be necessary. If a person is tapered or otherwise terminates maintenance treatment, they are at higher risk of fatal overdose.

In the case of addiction, distinguishing between “substance use disorder” and “dependence” is a life and death debate. Understanding that substance use disorders – addictions – are more than physical dependence means we will help these individuals long after withdrawals are gone and for as long as they need treatment.

This post was last updated 5/4/17.

Are Twelve Step Approaches Evidence-Based for Addictions Recovery?

For a long time since Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1935, AA’s twelve steps were the standard of care in addictions treatment. AA is a mutual help group for people with alcohol use disorders, guided by standard literature and twelve steps aimed at helping people make amends, develop spiritually, and connect with others in similar situations.

Original 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

AA’s model has been adopted by other groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Gambler’s Anonymous (GA), Overeater’s Anonymous (OA), and other variations. In each case, these groups continue to rely on the twelve steps, with minor adaptations, and have been generally known as 12-step support groups.

People in 12-step groups help each other with bits of collective wisdom beyond official literature, including the admonition to change “people, places, things” to remove triggers for use; the acronym HALT, reminding members never to get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired; and the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

While meeting formats vary, they tend to include members sharing about their experiences and struggles while living in recovery and readings and discussions of the 12-step literature. Twelve-step groups also encourage members to find sponsors to provide advice based on their own recovery experience. Generally, people who have been abstinent for awhile become sponsors for other, newer members.

Many hundreds of people have testified that 12-step support groups saved their lives, and some scientific research seems to support the efficacy of 12-step groups (Humphreys et al., 2014Witbrodt et al., 2014; Moos & Moos, 2006).

Other people have criticized 12-step groups, pointing to the high rates of dropout, the heavy spiritual and moralistic emphasis, the inconsistent and contradictory logic in its literature, and the variability of groups depending on who is in them. Furthermore, about half of women who have participated in AA have experienced “13th-stepping,” the practice where group members, usually men, target new members, usually women, for dating or sex. In some cases this common practice has resulted in rape.

Despite their limitations, 12-step support groups remain an important part of many peoples’ lives in recovery, particularly if they feel belonging to their group. Research shows that social support is an important part of recovering from addiction. People who are a part of a strong group of people committed to sobriety are more likely to stay abstinent than people surrounded by old friends who may still be drinking or drugging.

Twelve-step groups are not the only addictions support group option, however. For people who want the social support without the spiritual emphasis, other mutual help groups exist, such as SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training) and Moderation Management.

The Minnesota Model and Modern Rehab

The ubiquity of 12-step support groups was expanded to treatment in the 1950s by the Minnesota Model, a 12-step-based program developed by two people (not yet trained in addictions) working in a state mental hospital that was quickly adopted by the Hazelden Foundation, one of the oldest and most well-known rehab centers. The Minnesota Model is an intensive program including mandatory 12-step meetings, lectures, and counseling.

Rehab centers like Hazelden provide this type of care for 28-day periods on an inpatient basis. For many people with addiction, inpatient rehab may be their first contact with addictions treatment. Rehab centers have been criticized for high relapse rates, and for not following up with patients following discharge. Research on the efficacy of standard, 28-day rehab programs is notoriously scarce.

Twelve Step Facilitation (TSF)

Much later, in the 1990s, Twelve Step Facilitation was developed as a standardized adaptation of 12-step support groups, intended as an early, individual therapy delivered by a counselor. TSF helps to introduce many of the concepts of 12-step support groups, and encourages patients to engage in support groups following therapy. However, TSF is distinct from AA and other 12-step support groups.

“TSF is not officially related to or sanctioned by AA. It is available as a manual for standardized use by addiction treatment facilitators with a focus on abstinence as a treatment goal. Participation in AA meetings and other official AA activities (such as service and AA social events) is encouraged as a means to that end.” – Nowinski, Baker, & Carroll, 1999.

Some studies have demonstrated that Twelve Step Facilitation has helped people use 12-step support groups to support abstinent lifestyles, though when compared with TSF, cognitive behavioral therapy may be better for long-term support. As a first step toward engagement in 12-step support groups, TSF seems to be helpful and is often used in inpatient rehab settings.

Despite the ubiquity of 12-step groups and programs, scientific studies evaluating how well they work have not yet established, conclusively, whether 12-step-based approaches are effective. Reviews of the literature find mixed results, with some studies finding positive effects, some finding negative effects, and some detecting no statistically significant influence. Studies face methodological challenges (particularly self-selection bias), and most often do not distinguish between 12-step support groups, inpatient rehab, and TSF (perhaps because their content is so similar).

The first mandate of medical treatment is to do no harm. Because some studies have found 12-step programs to be detrimental to people, and because their effects are otherwise inconsistent and inconclusive, 12-step-based treatments cannot be considered to be evidence-based. Evidence-based treatments for addiction do exist, and include cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies, mindfulness training, and a range of pharmaceutical treatments. Typically, addictions treatments must be individualized, and must account for the type of substance or behavior used, co-occurring mental disorders, and trauma history.

With a scarcity of evidence, treatment providers must decide on a case-by-case basis whether 12-step groups, inpatient rehab, TSF, or some alternative is best for a person in recovery. Twelve-step groups and facilitation do work for many people, but they are not for everyone.

The primary benefit of 12-step support groups and programs is subjective, depending on the quality of the human relationships in a given group and on the importance of spirituality to the person in recovery. Social support is recommended for people in recovery from addictions, but other mutual help groups may provide this without the problematic aspects of the 12-step approach.

After extensive research, the most balanced recommendation I can make is if you are a person in recovery, consult your doctor first, and choose the treatments that work for you. The goal is to create a stable and positive life in recovery, and if a treatment is not adding to this goal, it is not for you. In this case, if the medicine tastes bad, it is bad.

If you are a treatment provider or a drug court judge, please be advised that 12-step groups and programs are not evidence-based, may sometimes do harm, and therefore, if recommended at all, should be one of many treatment and recovery support options offered.

I wrote this post following a discussion with Anne Giles, in which she requested balanced research on the efficacy of and difference between 12-step support groups, inpatient rehab, and Twelve Step Facilitation. The positions I take in this post are mine, and cannot speak for her, or for Handshake Media, Inc.