We know a lot about addiction. We know that addiction is a complex brain disease – not a weakness or lack of willpower. We know its risk factors include “genetic predisposition, structural and functional brain vulnerabilities, psychological factors and environmental influences,” according to a groundbreaking 2012 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
We know that the age a person starts using addictive substances can strongly predict risk. Research has found that in 96.5 percent of cases, people began using substances before 21 years old – when the brain is still developing and especially vulnerable.
We also know that addiction co-occurs with or leads to other conditions. According to the report, “Both risky substance use and addiction cause or contribute to more than 70 other conditions requiring medical care, such as heart disease and cancer, as well as mental health and behavioral disorders–including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders.”
We know that while addiction severity, symptoms and course vary greatly, addiction tends to be a chronic disease.
But even though we know what leads to addiction and how it manifests, treatment options in America are largely inadequate. The above report from Columbia University reveals the sobering facts: To start, there’s no national standard of care for addiction. Second, despite addiction being a chronic illness, treatment programs tend to offer acute interventions.
This is one of the reasons outcomes are so poor across the field, said Ben Levenson, co-founder of Origins Recovery Centers, a comprehensive facility that offers treatment for substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. Levenson understands addiction firsthand. His mom has been sober for 20 years. She lost her brother to an overdose. Levenson also lost his brother in 2001, and personally struggled with addiction. “I almost died myself … prior to getting sober.”
“I was in the care of phenomenal physicians and compassionate clinicians. But I was a patient at a time when … and it is still the case, the model for addiction treatment was essentially an acute intervention for what we all know is a chronic disease.” After 30 days of treatment, Levenson was essentially expected to recover on his own.
Many treatment programs also offer unproven therapies and have little medical supervision. Some promise “one-time” fixes. Others charge exorbitant fees, “with little evidence justifying the cost,” according to the report.