As I listened to several speakers champion the apparently threatened cause of drug treatment at the 2nd Annual Addiction Symposium in San Francisco, I wondered to what degree I was hearing cutting edge opinion. Conventional wisdom is that drug treatment should be thriving, with Parity Laws, Affordable Care Acts, and so on paving the way for expanded services: more spaces in outpatient programs; increased number of beds in hospitals. Third party payers must now think of addiction, or substance use disorders (as they are termed in the APA’s DSM V), as a disease, and therefore pay accordingly for its treatment. But programs aimed at specific professionals, such as doctors and nurses, are under threat, apparently. At least so-called “diversion” programs are threatened, though speakers thought the term “diversion” ought to be threatened (for reasons I didn’t really understand, I should add). Meanwhile, I wondered about the implications for a particular corner of the drug treatment industry, one in which I worked for fifteen years: namely, adolescent residential treatment.
When speaking of access to treatment for doctors, airline pilots, nurses, as well as adults in the general public, advocates tend to speak against discrimination issues: the problem of individuals being discharged from treatment programs because they relapse on drugs, or because they otherwise break program rules, fail to comply with medication regimens; because they exhibit the symptoms of their disease. The mocking that is directed at such intolerant discharges—the would you turn away a heart disease patient who has a heartattack? arguments—remind me of the similar yet more detached observations of journalist/physician Lonny Shavelson in his book Hooked. He likewise decried the strict rules of Therapeutic Communities, and lauded drug courts for working more flexibly with society’s most difficult cases, its most inveterate users. However, it’s strange to me that given the ubiquity of sanguine opinion at the level of medical leadership, that principals of adolescent programs, especially residential programs, don’t weigh in with some counterarguments: most notably, that relapsing substance users don’t just disaffect themselves as they continue to use drugs or refuse to take pills or go to therapy. Sometimes they spread drugs in a program, or threaten people, physically hurt people; harass people, verbally abuse people, staff and peers. Problem? Of course it’s a problem—a problem of safety. And it’s not a problem that can be resolved with a brief course of motivational interviewing, and so discharging—that “discriminating” act against the incorrigible—is not only appropriate for some, it’s necessary.
This issue of how to make treatment safe for everyone (especially kids) is one of the most important topics in my book, <em>Working Through Rehab: An Inside Look at Adolescent Drug Treatment</em>. Who am I to offer opinions? Who do I need to be? I am not a physician. I’m not a recovering drug addict, nor am I a long-suffering parent of a troubled teen. But I am a psychotherapist, and I worked for fifteen years in this complex rehab business that defies soundbites, pat summaries of phenomena. I compiled memories and opinion, and now offer for a concerned readership a nuanced view of what really happens in an average drug rehab.