The Addiction Treatment System
As with mental health treatment, no single addiction treatment system exists. Rather, there is a collection of different types of services such as social and medical model detoxification programs, short- and long-term treatment programs, methadone detoxification and maintenance programs, long-term therapeutic communities, and self-help adjuncts such as the 12-step programs. These programs can vary greatly with respect to treatment goals and philosophies. For example, abstinence is a prerequisite for entry into some programs, while it is a long-term goal in other programs. Some AOD treatment programs are not abstinence oriented. For example, some methadone maintenance programs have the overt goal of eventual abstinence for all patients, while others promote continued methadone use to encourage psychosocial stabilization.
As with mental health treatment, addiction treatment is provided by a diverse group of practitioners, including physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, certified addiction counselors, MFCCs, and other therapists, counselors, and recovering paraprofessionals. There can be a wide difference in experience, expertise, and knowledge among these diverse providers. As with mental health treatment, most States have public and private AOD treatment systems.
The strengths of addiction treatment services include the multidisciplinary team approach with a biopsychosocial emphasis, and an understanding of the addictive process combined with knowledge of the drugs of abuse and the 12-step programs. In typical addiction treatment, medications are used to treat the complications of addiction, such as overdose and withdrawal. However, few medications that directly treat or interrupt the addictive process, such as disulfiram and naltrexone, have been identified or regularly used. Maintenance medications such as methadone are crucial for certain patients. However, most addiction treatment professionals attempt to eliminate patients’ use of all drugs.
Similarities of Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Systems
- Variety of treatment settings and program types
- Public and private settings
- Multiple levels of care
- Biopsychosocial models
- Increasing use of case and care management
- Value of self-help adjuncts.
Many who work in the addiction treatment field have only a limited understanding of medications used for psychiatric disorders. Historically, some people have mistakenly assumed that all or most psychiatric medications are psychoactive or potentially addictive. Many addiction treatment staff tend to avoid the use of any medication with their patients, probably in reaction to those whose addiction included prescription medications such as diazepam (Valium). Many staff have a lack of training and experience in the use of such medications. In the treatment of dual disorders, a balance must be made between behavioral interventions and the appropriate use of nonaddicting psychiatric medications for those who need them to participate in the recovery process. Withholding medications from such individuals increases their chances of AOD relapse.
An important adjunct to addiction treatment services is the massive system of consumer-developed groups, such as the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Participants in AA and other self-help groups (Narcotics Anonymous [NA], Cocaine Anonymous [CA], etc.) can provide needed support and encouragement for patients in treatment. Importantly, these services are widespread nationally and internationally. While self-help programs are not considered treatment per se, they are integral adjuncts to professional treatment services.
However, patients in self-help groups may give others inappropriate advice regarding medication compliance, based on personal experience, fears of medication, or incomplete knowledge about the role of medication in dual disorders. In many urban areas, there are specialized 12-step groups for people with dual disorders. In these so-called “Double Trouble” meetings, medication compliance is a part of “working the program.”
The Medical System
Primary health care providers (physicians and nurses) have historically been the largest single point of contact for patients seeking help with psychiatric and AOD use disorders. Physicians and nurses are uniquely qualified to manage life-threatening crises and to treat medical problems related and unrelated to psychiatric and substance use disorders. And because they are in contact with such large numbers of patients, they have an exceptional opportunity to screen and identify patients with psychiatric and AOD disorders.
However, physicians — especially primary care physicians — are able to devote very little time to each patient. Pressured for time, these physicians may prescribe such psychiatric medications as antidepressants or anxiolytics or medication such as disulfiram or naltrexone as a primary approach, rather than as an adjunctive approach. Indeed, primary care physicians are the largest single prescriber of antianxiety medications. Some of these medications, such as the benzodiazepines, are psychoactive and can be abused.
Also, physicians and nurses have historically been trained to focus on the medical consequences of addiction, such as withdrawal, overdose, or hepatitis, without assessing, treating, or actively referring the individual for treatment of the addiction itself. The role of physicians with regard to addiction is changing through the leadership of national organizations such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Academy of Psychiatrists on Alcohol and Addiction, and the Association of Medical Education and Research on Substance Abuse. Similar groups exist for nurses and allied health care professionals. Such groups can provide medical professionals with important information and education about the biopsychosocial nature of addiction and treatment, especially regarding patients with dual disorders.