January 8, 2012, NEW YORK, NY – Award-winning neuroscience journalist and author Maia Szalavitz spoke at CASAColumbia’s quarterly Lunch-N-Learn, where she discussed her book, an exposé of the “tough love” teen treatment business entitled, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, and shared her insights and opinions on America’s addiction treatment facilities and what needs to be done to improve them.
Szalavitz’s passion for and fascination with addiction, love, evidence-based living, empathy and everything related to the brain and human behavior comes from a very personal place. A former heroin addict who recovered with the help of a traditional 28-day rehabilitation center, Szalavitz’s experience inspired her to devote her life to reporting broadly on America's health care system with a particular focus on neuroscience and addiction.
Szalavitz believes that the current system of addiction treatment advocates for the providers rather than for the patients. “People say we need more treatment without defining what that treatment will be,” she said. “I’m glad to see major organizations like CASAColumbia not just saying we need more funding for treatment, but that we need better care.”
Szalavitz spoke at length about how the troubled-teen “treatment” industry coerces parents into sending their children, many of whom are risky substance users, to treatment programs that are not regulated and do not offer evidenced-based care. In many cases these children are physically and emotionally abused and their illness is exacerbated.
“I believe you should not be able to legally sell something as therapy unless you can prove it doesn’t hurt people,” she said.
She went on to say that many parents send their children to dangerous treatment centers simply because they are uneducated on what evidenced-based treatment is and where it can be found due in part to the stigma surrounding addiction.
“If your kid has cancer, you mobilize your personal network, but if your kid is addicted and you need help you don’t call anyone. You go on the Internet,” Szalavitz explained.
According to Szalavitz, the judicial system is also a part of the problem because the courts continue to sentence offenders to treatment facilities that do not practice evidence-based care.
During her visit, Szalavitz discussed her preference for empathetic and supportive therapy over aggressive and confrontational therapy. She believes that by the time someone become addicted, they are not using out of the need for pleasure, but rather because they are hurting and need the substance to feel normal. Hurting them more through punitive treatment practices may only exacerbate their circumstance.
“We need to treat people with addiction with compassion, dignity and respect. The way to get people off drugs is to offer them alternate pleasures, not to inflict more pain,” she said. “We must educate people about what treatment should be. Social support is critical to recovery.” According to Szalavitz the three most important components to sustained recovery for an addict are meaning, purpose and a sense of community— basically having a way to live a productive and loving life.
The lecture, which was followed by a lively discussion, was attended by CASAColumbia's staff as well as a number of addiction researchers and professionals including individuals from The Partnership at DrugFree.org, The Fix, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System and the Cognitive Therapy Center of New York.
CASAColumbia’s next Lunch-N-Learn will take place on April 2.