An Argument for Depth Therapy in Drug Rehab



You might think that drug treatment with adolescents and psychoanalysis are terms that don’t go together, and you’d be right…sort of. Actually, a psychoanalytically-derived therapy is precisely what James Masterson, considered by many the father of adolescent psychiatry in the United States, intended for a residential treatment of troubled youth. His 1967 book, The Psychiatric Dilemma of Adolescence, offered the view that troubled kids do not “grow out of” problems of anxiety, depression, and acting out behaviors, as many of Masterson’s contemporaries appeared to assert. In this review, Masterson found that upon five years upon initial evaluation, over 50% of the adolescents previously treated in hospital settings for psychiatric conditions remained severely impaired. Although symptoms of anxiety, depression, and delinquent behaviors achieved modest reduction, some psychiatric disorders, such as pathological character traits, had not been touched upon in treatment at all.
Subsequently, Masterson was invited to take charge of adolescent inpatients at the Paine Whitney Clinic connected with Cornell University, which later resulted in his seminal text, Treatment of the Borderline Adolescent, in 1972. This book introduced the stage progression system of movement through a long-term residential program, intended to mirror the child development stages of separation-individuation as observed by Object Relations theorist Margaret Mahler. In this book, Masterson describes an initial “testing” phase of treatment in which patients relentlessly break rules or challenge staff, testing the limit-setting capabilities of staff, substituting them as parents (alloparenting, some call this), unconsciously determining who cares enough about them to maintain said limits and thus provide safety. The job of the therapists in such a setting is to convert patients from “actors and non-feelers” to “feelers and talkers”. Twenty years after this text was published, I began my career working in the field of adolescent drug treatment, though it was a further ten years before Masterson’s ideas really sunk in.
During my early years at Thunder Road in Oakland, a Therapeutic Community whose structure once bore a distinct resemblance to that described at Payne Whitney, I adapted to a cohesive treatment structure that more or less supported the Masterson approach (though few referenced him specifically), while adhering to the psychodynamic underpinning. Staff commonly used terms that were of psychoanalytic pedigree, such as “containment”, “splitting”, and “failure to thrive”; interns such as myself were repeatedly encouraged to observe transference (feelings in present relationships that are unknowing reflective of past relationships) meanings in the behaviors of patients, and more importantly, to attend to countertransference feelings in ourselves that may impinge upon therapeutic goals. Even staff not trained or educated in psychoanalytic concepts appeared to observe unconscious process in patients; in confrontation groups, counselors would routinely call out the negative behaviors, tease out the secrets of “acting out”. Then, upon the dropping of defenses, staff would zero in, often compassionately, sometimes not, upon the deeper meanings, the unacknowledged feelings.
For many in treatment this seemed not only fruitful, but also necessary, even exciting. They appreciated feeling understood. Furthermore, it seemed like common sense, this in-depth approach. Firstly, the adolescents lived in the facility and were kept clear of substances (at least, much more so than they otherwise would have been). There was clearly an opportunity for multiple therapy sessions per week, in various formats: individual, family therapy, and group. Even daily meetings were possible, and so the table was set for an in-depth therapy to occur. But the truth is that psychoanalytically-derived therapies, which call for an exploration of attachment patterns, links between family of origin memories and latter day behaviors, is frowned upon in many community mental health settings, even rehab settings wherein the intensive structure would seem tailor made for an in depth approach. There are several reasons for this, in my opinion: most concern either expediency or cost, but other reasons constitute a pronounced, if subtle devaluation of not only adolescent capacities, but also the dedicated staff that typically comprise drug treatment teams.
One assumption is that shorter term therapeutic orientations, solution-focused or cognitive behavioral therapies, for example, are easier to train to newer professionals. Their elements are easier to bullet point, sound-bite, and thus install into memory, left-brain functioning, versus the more unwieldy task of integrating a fuller experience. This is why many patients leave rehab centers armed with jargon, making glib pronouncements as to how they’ve changed; promises that all too often they cannot sustain. Often, these patients haven’t changed—not really. They’ve learned some “tools”, can parrot some phrases, maybe a few 12-step slogans. But their complex feelings haven’t about themselves and others haven’t changed, much less their understandings about those feelings. A second reason for the proscription of in depth therapy is that it is presumed to be cost-ineffective. But short term methods mean short-term outcomes, in my opinion, while short-sighted research conceals long-term effects, the attrition of growth that leads people back to rehab without understanding why earlier lessons didn’t stick. Reading this, a proponent of brief models would likely break out the sales pitch language and declare short term models “evidence-based”, and imply that psychodynamic models are not. This is untrue. Don’t believe me? Check out University of Colorado professor Jonathan Shedler’s comprehensive, 10-year meta-analysis research of over 70 studies upon the efficacy of psychodynamic models. It was published in the March 2010 issue of American Psychologist. It’ll open your eyes.
Regardless, especially in my latter years at Thunder Road, I experienced the unfortunate devaluation of psychodynamic models of care, and heard that similar things were happening at other programs. Managers began making philistine comments in staff meetings, deriding psychodynamic models as “that Freud stuff” while unknowingly using psychodynamic terms to reference current and longstanding practices. Few around me seemed to know or remember who James Masterson was, much less perceive his legacy within adolescent psychiatry. Borrowing models concurrently used in schools, clinical managers began using language connected with the Strength-based movement, which presumes a normative population of youth as the focus of care, emphasizes encouragement of adolescents’ strengths versus what is disparagingly termed a deficit-based approach. Thankfully at least, short-term models with worthy methods are coming to the forefront, muscling into the competitive arena of ideas. Most notable are the mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches, which are teaching affect (affect roughly corresponds to feeling) regulation skills (Important note: addiction is increasingly understood as a problem of affect dysregulation, not faulty cognition!), which draw their principles from advances in the area of neurobiology.


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