Reflections on the state of the field

Highlights from an interview between 2 of the most important figures in the field.

On the relationship between psychiatric symptoms and AOD use:

Bill White: One of your early interests there was the relationship between patients’ drug choices and particular types of psychiatric disorders. How did that interest develop?


Dr. McLellan: Well, once again, there was no planning involved. I was a junior faculty member at the Coatesville Veteran’s Administration Medical Center. At that time, they had about 3,000 residential beds that were constantly filled with people who had psychiatric illness, really quite severe psychiatric illness. This was the era of the first patients’ rights movement, and it fell to me to evaluate a random sample of patients and ask them confidentially about their satisfaction with all manner of things, like their treatment, the food, the doctors and all of that. Well, in the course of this, I was able to insert some additional questions about whether there had been any drug use in their history. And indeed, there was. More importantly, many of them were actively involved in using alcohol and other drugs right on the campus. I was amazed by that—showing my naïveté—so that was the first report; but the second report was a little more interesting.

Because I had interviewed these individuals without any kind of background, I later went and looked up their diagnoses. It turned out that their diagnoses were quite related to the kinds of drugs that they had been using. People who were diagnosed as depressed were often using a variety of depressant or tranquilizing drugs. People who were diagnosed with schizophrenia had histories of using amphetamine—there was very little cocaine use at that time. The people with alcohol and opiate use backgrounds had a variety of diagnoses. I wrote an early paper on this possible relationship.

This led me to ask such questions of current patients, many of whom had been coming to the Veteran’s Administration for a number of years. By tracing back their early psychiatric test results, I found over a six year period, in a sample of people who had returned to treatment every year for six years, that there was a progressive development of psychiatric problems that mirrored the actions of the drugs they were using. Particularly interesting were the changes in psychiatric diagnoses among people who used amphetamine/methamphetamine over a six year period. They moved from being treated primarily in the drug unit, to being treated in the psychiatric unit, and finally, into locked wards. It looked as though, after some period of time, the symptoms that were purely drug-related and temporary ultimately ended up being permanent or semi-permanent. The same thing happened with people who used combinations of alcohol and depressants. Depression—significant, serious depression—was sustained. Also interesting, we saw no major changes in the psychiatric problems of people who used opiates or alcohol.

As a point of potential interest to young researchers, I wrote these findings and tried to present them to the American Psychological Association, and they turned it down flat.

On thinking about multiple problem clients:

Some problems cause substance use; some problems result from substance use; and some simply emerge along with substance use as the result of genetic, personality or environmental conditions. This was one of the most important things I ever learned about addiction. Like many of the people I meet in my current job, I too thought that if you just reduce the drug use, all the other “drug related” problems would disappear. This was, and still is, a very naïve view. Worse, it has been a very big force in the way the original—and some of the existing—treatment programs were conceptualized, designed, funded and evaluated.

On service integration and the future of the field:

In this policy environment that I’m in now, one of the emerging themes is integrating addiction treatment into mainstream healthcare. I know a lot of readers are going to get very worried about that. They know the bad old days when addiction was treated under the mental health umbrella and was viewed as merely a symptom of an underlying depression or personality disorder and never given the emphasis it properly required. I hope that doesn’t come back, but here’s the other truth: addiction treatment as a field is currently reaching only a tiny fraction of the people it should reach.

Addiction is causing and is complicating a lot of medical disorders. Mainstream healthcare has never really paid the attention it should have to addiction related problems in the mainstream healthcare system. Meanwhile, as addiction treatment has become more segregated, budgets have been reduced virtually every year since I’ve been working in this field. I know of no kind of treatment, education or public enterprise that is best when it is segregated. So we’re trying very hard to bring addiction treatment—particularly screening and early intervention with mild to moderate substance use disorders—into lots more healthcare settings, particularly primary care and family medicine centers. Importantly, I am talking less about “addiction,” than about the less severe and less chronic forms of substance use—unhealthy use, problematic use, etc. We’re trying to develop more and more varied kinds of treatments: treatments that will involve medications, treatments that will involve families; treatments that will involve whole communities. We are hoping that different types of treatments for mild to moderate substance use problems, delivered within the same context as the rest of medical care, are more attractive and engaging to those who will not even consider treatment now.

One thought on “Reflections on the state of the field

  1. This might not make any sense and I might be looking at it wrong, but…McLellan makes the important distinction between "addiction" and "unhealthy" or "problematic use", and seems to be implying that models of service integration are more focused on the latter. He also uses the term "mild to moderate substance use problems"The language he uses is confusing and seems incongruent with the distinction that he makes between addiction and problematic use.He seems to use these various terms interchangeably at certain points and differently at others. Why use the term addiction treatment if you are not treating addictions, but are treating mild to moderate, or unhealthy problematic use? Why talk about the problems that addiction causes and complicates if you are really talking about service integration for these other problems? Is the use of this language not important?

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