Sunday, February 24, 2008

Invitation to Guest Authors

Guest authors are invited to contribute to this blog. I have to take another break until the end of June. I'm working on a book with a June 30 deadline.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Confrontation Therapy, R.I.P.

Two of my favorite scholars have combined to write a powerhouse of an article that everyone interested in addiction treatment will want to read. William R. Miller, co-author of the Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches (reviewed here), and William L. White, author of the monumental history Slaying the Dragon (reviewed here), have written what hopefully will be an obituary for an era, entitled "Confrontation in Addiction Treatment." It's in Counselor Magazine. Here are a few snippets from this substantial, strongly researched and comprehensive treatment:

The use of confrontational strategies in individual, group and family substance abuse counseling emerged through a confluence of cultural factors in U.S. history, pre-dating the development of methods for reliably evaluating the effects of such treatment. Originally practiced within voluntary peer-based communities, confrontational approaches soon extended to authority-based professional relationships where the potential for abuse and harm greatly increased. Four decades of research have failed to yield a single clinical trial showing efficacy of confrontational counseling, whereas a number have documented harmful effects, particularly for more vulnerable populations. There are now numerous evidence-based alternatives to confrontational counseling, and clinical studies show that more effective substance abuse counselors are those who practice with an empathic, supportive style. It is time to accept that the harsh confrontational practices of the past are generally ineffective, potentially harmful, and professionally inappropriate.


Early claims of the superior effectiveness of confrontation and counterclaims that it was ineffective and potentially harmful relied primarily on statement of opinion buttressed by anecdotes. With the emergence of more science-grounded treatment approaches in the 1980s and 1990s came studies that began to tip the scales of this debate. Two recent reports, however, suggest that confrontation still has its proponents. A 2001 study on staff attitudes toward addiction treatment found that 46 percent of those surveyed agreed that “confrontation should be used more” (Forman, Bavasso & Woody, 2001); and a 2004 ethnographic survey of adolescent addiction treatment in the United States commonly encountered programs that were “explicitly designed to demean and humiliate” (Currie, 2004).


There never has been a scientific basis for believing that people with substance use disorders, let alone their family members, possess a unique personality or character disorder. Quite to the contrary, research on virtually any measure reflects wide diversity of personal characteristics among people with addictions, who are about as diverse as the general population, or as snowflakes. Studies of defense mechanisms among people in alcohol treatment have found no characteristic defensive structure, and higher denial was specifically found in a clinical sample to be associated not with worse, but with better treatment retention and outcomes (Donovan, Hague & O’Leary, 1975).


Reviewing four decades of treatment outcome research, we found no persuasive evidence for a therapeutic effect of confrontational interventions with substance use disorders. This was not for lack of studies. A large body of trials found no therapeutic effect relative to control or comparison treatment conditions, often contrary to the researchers’ expectations. Several have reported harmful effects including increased drop-out, elevated and more rapid relapse, and higher DWI recidivism. This pattern is consistent across a variety of confrontational techniques tested. In sum, there is not and never has been a scientific evidence base for the use of confrontational therapies.
If you've ever been exposed to confrontation therapy, or have a confrontational counselor now, by all means read this article, sure to be reprinted in textbooks and to become a classic.

If there's one defect in it, it's in glossing over the confrontational therapy element in AA itself. Dr. Harry Tiebout, whose psychiatric theorizing framed the confrontational approach, was hugely influential on Bill Wilson, and he was not alone. Dr. Silkworth echoed the theme, with his advice to Wilson to "give them the medical business, and give it to them hard." The "medical business" meant to convince the alcoholic that he was suffering from an incurable fatal illness. This revelation was designed to attack and to "shatter" the alcoholic's defenses, to "deflate" his ego, and render him hopelessly dependent on his "physician." The very first clause of step one, the foundation of the whole edifice, "powerless over alcohol," expresses a confrontational strategy, as thousands of counselors have found out in practice. To be fair, this is not the only element in AA; there are other strands that tend to counterbalance it. But the article is certainly wrong in claiming, as it does, that there is no attack therapy strand in AA at all. -- This cavil aside, the article is a masterful piece of work, by two giants in the field. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Abstinence leads to rapid brain repair

Abstinence leads to rapid repair of gross brain damage seen in alcohol dependent persons, according to a review of neuroimaging studies by a group of Japanese researchers.
In uncomplicated alcoholic patients, a high incidence of cortical shrinkage and ventricular dilatation were reported using brain CT scans. In older alcoholics, prefrontal gray matter deficits were especially marked when compared with younger alcoholics. Reversibility of brain shrinkage is a common neuroimaging finding in patients with alcohol dependence.
Regrowth of shrunken brain areas was particularly vigorous during the first month of abstinence, the scans showed. Besides the gray matter, areas "with significantly greater recovery in abstainers were the temporal lobes, thalamus, brainstem, cerebellum, corpus callosum, anterior cingulate, insula, and subcortical white matter." Follow-up studies showed that the regrowth was not simply due to rehydration.

The study appeared in the Dec. 2007 issue of the Japanese Journal of Alcohol Studies and Drug Dependence. The abstract is here.

Brazil study: Does AA really work?

"Do Alcoholics Anonymous groups really work? Factors of adherence in a Brazilian sample of hospitalized alcohol dependents." -- That's the title of a study in the current issue of the American Journal of Addiction, published by a American Academy of Psychiatrists in Alcoholism and Addiction. A team of researchers headed by M.B. Terra followed 300 alcoholics committed to three hospitals in Puerto Allegre, Brazil. Results (from the abstract):
AA adherence was below 20%. The main factors reported by patients as reasons for non-adherence to AA were relapse, lack of identification with the method, lack of need, and lack of credibility. The factors reported by patients as reasons for adherence were identification with the method and a way to avoid relapse. Although AA is considered an effective intervention for alcoholism, its adherence rate was excessively low. The identification of these nonadherence factors could help health professionals in referring certain alcoholic patients to therapeutic interventions other than AA.

The result of this study is unsurprising; essentially the same finding was made in a meta-analysis almost two years ago reported in the Cochran Report (Source) What's noteworthy here is that patients were asked their reasons. It would be useful if the various threads in the responses (objections to the 12-step approach on the one hand, denial on the other) were explored in more depth and an attempt made to untangle them.