I had a brief but good conversation with a colleague today that reminded me of what’s at stake in the way we define addiction.
How we define addiction determines which helpers and which systems own the problem. Addiction is most frequently being rolled into mental health, but also into criminal justice, public health, traditional medicine, etc.
Of course, good stewardship is important and the categorically segregated addiction treatment system has failed on many counts.
Here are a few thoughts from Bill White on the topic from Slaying the Dragon and some Counselor articles:
On problem ownership:
Whether we define alcoholism as a sin, a crime, a disease, a social problem, or a product of economic deprivation determines whether this society assigns that problem to the care of the priest, police officer, doctor, addiction counselor, social worker, urban planner, or community activist. The model chosen will determine the fate of untold numbers of alcoholics and addicts and untold numbers of social institutions and professional careers.
The existence of a “treatment industry” and its “ownership” of the problem of addiction should not be taken for granted. Sweeping shifts in values and changes in the alignment of major social institutions might pass ownership of this problem to another group.
On the segregation-integration pendulum:
American history is replete with failed efforts to integrate the care of alcoholics and addicts into other helping systems. These failed experiments are followed by efforts to move such care into a categorically segregated system that, once achieved, is followed with renewed proposals for service integration. After fighting 40 years to be born as an autonomous field of service, addiction treatment is once again in the throes of service-integration mania. This cynical evolution in the organization of addiction treatment services seems to be part of two broader pendulum swings in the broader culture, between specialization and generalization and between centralization and decentralization. Once we have destroyed most of the categorically segregated addiction treatment institutions in America, a grassroots movement will likely arise again to recreate them.
On the historical essence of addiction counseling:
If AOD problems could be solved by physically unraveling the person-drug relationship, only physicians and nurses trained in the mechanics of detoxification would be needed to address these problems. If AOD problems were simply a symptom of untreated psychiatric illness, more psychiatrists, not addiction counselors would be needed. If these problems were only a reflection of grief, trauma, family disturbance, economic distress, or cultural oppression, we would need psychologists, social workers, vocational counselors, and social activists rather than addiction counselors. Historically, other professions conveyed to the addict that other problems were the source of addiction and their resolution was the pathway to recovery. Addiction counseling was built on the failure of this premise. The addiction counselor offered a distinctly different view: “All that you have been and will be flows from the problem of addiction and how you respond or fail to respond to it.”
Addiction counseling as a profession rests on the proposition that AOD problems reach a point of self-contained independence from their initiating roots and that direct knowledge of addiction, its specialized treatment, and the processes of long-term recovery provide the most viable instrument for healing and wholeness. If these core understandings are ever lost, the essence of addiction counseling will have died even if the title and its institutional trappings survive. We must be cautious in our emulation of other helping professions. We must not forget that the failure of these professions to adequately understand and treat addiction constituted the germinating soil of addiction counseling as a specialized profession.
On the soul of the field and its future:
In the face of such threats (managed care, facility closures, merger mania & integration into behavioral health systems), the field is experiencing a strange phenomenon. As the core of the addiction treatment field shrinks, the field is growing at the periphery. Where the total amount allocated to residential and inpatient treatment services is shrinking, the numbers of outpatient services is actually increasing, as is a growing number of new specialty programs that extend addiction treatment services into allied fields. The growth zone of the addiction treatment industry is not at the traditional core but in the delivery of addiction treatment services into the criminal justice system, the public health system (particularly AIDS related projects), the child welfare system, the mental health system, and the public-welfare system. If one looks at these trends as a whole, what is emerging in the 1990s is a treatment system less focused on the goal of long-term personal recovery than on social control of the addict. The goal of this evolving system is moving from a focus on the personal outcome of treatment to an assurance that the alcoholic and addict will not bother us and will cost us as little as possible.
The fate of the field will be determined by its ability to redefine its niche in an increasingly turbulent health-care and social-service ecosystem. That fate will also be dictated by more fundamental issues – the ability of the field to: 1) reconnect with the passion for service out of which it was born; 2) re-center itself clinically and ethically; 3) forge new service technologies in response to new knowledge and the changing characteristics of clients, families, and communities; and 4) the ability of the field to address the problem of leadership development and succession.