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Why America’s Addiction Treatment System Is Broken & What You Can Do

Why America's Addiction Treatment System Is Broken & What You Can DoWe 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.

Worse, the report said, “…there are no outcome data reflecting the quality of treatment providers so that patients can make informed decisions.”

Levenson agrees. “The field of addiction treatment has failed to measure outcomes. And the way in which we have measured outcomes has zero veracity.”

He cited the work of White and Godley (2005), who detail the weaknesses of local followup studies. According to the authors, “Some claims of treatment success rest on no scientific foundation and instead represent everything from honest estimates to self-serving fabrications. However, the more common problem is that well-intentioned individuals within local programs conduct follow-up studies of discharged clients using methods that are so different from those used in scientific studies as to render the results across these worlds incomparable.”

White and Godley note that local studies suffer from such weaknesses as: potential bias in design and conduct of the study (treatment programs naturally want positive results); the exclusion of patients who didn’t complete the treatment program; small sample sizes (“We have seen significant findings occur with 30 clients per condition only to be reduced to clinically trivial differences upon following up 50 clients per condition”); and solely self-reported data, which is usually collected over the phone (and excludes drug testing).

Another issue is that facilities don’t measure a patient’s response to treatment during treatment, Levenson said. He compared this to an oncologist diagnosing a patient with a malignant tumor. The doctor prescribes a specific treatment plan with chemotherapy and radiation. “Then six weeks into therapy, the oncologist fails to scan the tumor to see if it’s shrinking or not.”

This is why Levenson and his team at Origins measure each patient’s responsiveness while they’re receiving treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and biofeedback. This lets them adjust the treatment in real-time, optimizing the patient’s responsiveness and ultimately their outcome, he said.

Why America’s Addiction Treatment System Is Broken & What You Can Do

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Why America’s Addiction Treatment System Is Broken & What You Can Do. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.