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Dr. Phil's "Addiction"

03/23/09 | by the professor [mail] | Categories: General

Dr. Phil and other tele-psychologists promote fundamental misunderstandings about addiction. Playing out in a type of public psychodrama, the inflicted guest is usually told how the problem is easily solved “if you only . . .” as the ‘all-knowing sage’ offers insight (and often resolution) within a single 60-minute episode. This kind of 'pop psychology' is replete with misinformation about addiction—what it is, its nature, and its treatment. Increased sensitivity to the problem of addiction notwithstanding, the misinformation promoted on such popular television programs as Dr. Phil and Oprah does a considerable disservice to addiction science as well as to the addicts themselves. Much of the misinformation may be promoted out of ignorance but some is motivated by commercial interests. The sad fact is that the pain and misery of addiction ‘sells’ and the turmoil of those affected both directly and indirectly is commonly exploited by the popular media: rating points go up as the tissues come out.

Addiction technology transfer attempts to narrow the gap between what is known from the science of addiction and what is commonly practiced in the clinic, promoted on talks shows, and believed by laymen in general. A primary mission of the ASNet is to help narrow this gap through its addiction technology transfer initiative. Indeed, this ‘thread’ is part of that effort. Other efforts include the Addiction Science Network website, university courses, and public lectures. And although this work may seem to have a small impact against the rising tide of tele-psychologists exploiting addiction for rating points, “it’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” So here’s a flicker of a flame which hopefully contributes to the work of others slowly narrowing the gap between knowledge and ignorance.

Some of the common fallacies promoted by 'talk show' psychologists and other popular media include the following.

  1. Addiction describes any obsession with something that is stronger than the desire most people experience. This type of fixation can occur to almost anything because it is an attribute of the individual and not related to the actual object being desired.

    This is one of the most fundamental misunderstandings about addiction and the proper use of this term. There is a wide range of motivational levels individual people express for normal rewards. Being on the upper tail of a normal distribution remains part of that NORMAL distribution. For example, a particularly strong desire to improve ones life by attending college despite personal hardships may be atypical but it is not pathological!Addiction describes a behavioral syndrome where the use of a substance seems to dominate the individual’s motivation and where the normal constraints on the individual’s behavior seem largely ineffective. This is caused by disturbances in normal brain chemistry that can be produced by the use of certain types of drugs (i.e., addictive drugs) and may also occur with the use of some other substances and even with non-chemical rewards in some people predisposed to developing an addiction. It does not involve any kind of psychological fixation caused by arrested psychosexual development in the Freudian sense nor does it involve the same process as that found with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Addiction is distinctively different from normal motivation and from other mental illnesses and therefore merits its own unique classification as a behavioral disorder. The single most prominent feature of addiction is the intense motivation to take the drug, motivation that exceeds the motivational level seen for most natural rewards. Consequential to this is a disruption of the individual’s normal motivational priorities (i.e., motivational toxicity) which is subjectively experienced typically as a sense of “loss of control” over ones own behavior.

  2. Common gateway drugs propel the individual to seeking stronger and stronger psychoactive substances to escape reality or to self-medicate some underlying psychological disorder. Use of marijuana or even tobacco products is a necessary step in developing an addiction and suppressing the use of these substances would prevent most cases of addiction.

    A corollary of this premise is that the distinction between hard and soft drugs becomes blurred because soft drugs are actually just one step below the use of hard drugs in the genesis of an addiction. And it also follows that the medicinal use of marijuana is unacceptable (despite its demonstrated effectiveness in certain disorders) because it will lead not only to marijuana addiction but addiction to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin as well. Of course most people who experiment with hard drugs have first experimented with soft drugs, but this is no reason to assume that soft-drug use was a necessary first step or that it somehow goaded the individual into using hard drugs. (For another example of falsely attributing cause-and-effect from similar data, see The Power of the Blog: We did It—Medical Marijuana is Almost Here!) People who experiment with drugs tend to ‘experiment with drugs!' This leads to an increased likelihood of trying a highly addictive drug and developing an addiction. However, people can easily side-step experimentation with soft drugs and begin experimentation with heroin or cocaine if those are the only drugs available. The use of soft drugs such as marijuana in no way ‘propels’ most individuals into hard drug use. It’s even possible many that people who experiment with soft drugs somehow satisfy some adolescent need to try drugs as an expression of independence and social defiance, and if only hard drugs were available the incidence of drug addiction would be even higher.

  3. Drug addiction is caused by a lack of respect for oneself and other psychodynamic factors like those involved in some other cases of abnormal behavior not involving drugs. If the individual develops "self respect," their drug use will simply fade away.

    This and the following false premise are related to the "denial of brain disorder" problem addressed by ASNet's addiction treatment-facility rating project. Part of the problem may be one of semantics and failing to distinguish drug abuse from drug addiction. But this distinction is often deliberately blurred to incorporate the severe emotional and behavioral turmoil of addiction with simple cases of drug abuse which are more easily remediated.

  4. Once the addict obtains insight into their own addiction, the addiction rapidly abates as they rebuild their lives unimpaired by their drug abuse.

    The notion of the curative power of 'insight' is used to justify the seemingly endless 'psycho-rumination' which discusses over-and-over the addiction in telling emotional terms until the 'flash of light' illuminates the true source of the problem and the desire for drug use stops. There are cases where this type of 'psychotherapy' may be useful, but it has little impact on true drug addiction which has a biological basis.

  5. Addicts are whisked away to treatment centers that magically cure their addiction at least for most people. Relapse to drug use is uncommon once 'propper' treatment is provided.

    Most addicts relapse to using drugs. If this were the sole criterion for treatment effectiveness, drug addiction treatment would be deemed ineffective. But effective treatment does increase the time before relapse, and drug addicts often re-enter treatment making progress each time towards eventually remaining drug abstinent for a sufficiently long period to consider the treatment overall effective if not 'perfect.' So treatment does work even though addicts typically relapse, but there's no 28- or 90-day program that magically saves the addict from their addiction. Too many treatment facilities promise unrealistic results and focus on treatment approaches that are known to be ineffective while enhancing the psychodrama aspects of addiction.

On the positive side, the portrayal by tele-psychologists often promotes:

  • an increased awareness and sensitivity to the problem of addiction, and
  • a greater tendency to seek help for addiction and to enter treatment programs.

So the question open for comment is:

Do tele-psychologists like Dr. Phil do more harm than good for understanding and treating drug addiction?

And subtopics include specific examples where the popular portrayals of addiction help and hinder a better understanding of this disorder. Of course general comments on "Dr. Phil's [portrayal of] Addiction" are also welcomed.

Follow up:

For those who think that I’m giving Dr. Phil a rough time by distorting his ‘take’ on addiction, please consider the following quote and read the online article to learn more about how he perceives the problem of addiction:

“Dr. Phil believes addictions always serve a need. For many, it's a basic emotional need of coming to terms with self-worth and developing a strong sense of self.” (Read more directly from the drphil.com website.)

Hey, Dr. Phil, ever hear of the BRAIN? Might that have something to do with drug addiction??? “Stupid is as stupid does,” but this is absurd to the point of being irresponsible.

(OK, that was perhaps a bit rude. But in the tele-psychologist's world of sound-bytes, an apt comment nonetheless.)

Related Topics on the ASNet
A Primer on Drug Addiction
The Nature of Addiction
Biological Basis of Addiction
Drug Addiction as a Disease
Distinguishing Drug Abuse from Addiction
Treatment Facilities Evaluation
Hard and Soft Drugs

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