What Drug and Alcohol Treatment Should Look Like: An Interview With Dr. Robert Schwebel

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In his last article for Pro Talk, Renaming and Rethinking Drug Treatment, psychologist Robert Schwebel, Ph.D., author and developer of The Seven Challenges program, expressed his views about problems in typical drug and alcohol treatment. In this interview, he focuses on changes that he thinks would better meet the needs of individuals with substance problems.

The Seven Challenges Program

The Seven Challenges is described as “a comprehensive counseling program for teens and young adults that incorporates work on alcohol and other drug problems.” The program addresses much more than substance issues because it also helps young people develop better life skills, as well as manage their situational and psychological problems. Although there is an established structure for each session and a framework for decision-making (see website for the youth version of “The Seven Challenges”), it is not pre-scripted as in many traditional programs. Rather it is “exceptionally flexible, in response to the immediate needs of the clients.” 

Independent studies funded by The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and published in peer-reviewed journals have provided evidence that The Seven Challenges significantly decreases substance use of adolescents and greatly improves their overall mental health status. The program has been shown to be especially effective for the many young people with drug problems who also have trauma issues.

Just recently, a new version of The Seven Challenges program was introduced for adults and is being piloted in a research project. Soon, a book geared toward the general public by Dr. Schwebel that incorporates much of the philosophy of the program, as well as many of the decision-making and behavior change strategies, will be available.

Q&A: What Should Treatment Look Like?

Q: In your last article for Pro Talk, you argued strongly against the word “treatment” and suggested that we use the word “counseling” instead. Will you reiterate why you prefer using “counseling” when talking about professional help for people with substance problems?

Dr. S.: Counseling is an active and interactive process that’s responsive to the needs of individuals. It may include education, but it’s more than that because the information is personalized and offered in the context of a discussion about what’s happening in a person’s life. Effective counselors help clients become aware of their options, expand those options, and make their own informed choices.

Treatment, on the other hand, sounds like something imposed and passive that an authority (say a doctor) does to someone else or tells them to do. It also implies recipients receive a standardized protocol or regime with a preconceived goal, usually abstinence when we’re talking about addiction. It doesn’t suggest autonomy of choice or collaboration.

 

Q: You stress the importance of choice and collaboration, suggesting both are important in addiction counseling. Please tell us more.

Dr. S.: In collaborative counseling that allows choices, clients get to identify the issues they want to work on. They make the decisions. We make it clear that we’re not there to make them quit using drugs…and couldn’t even if we tried. We tell them, “We’re here to support you in working on your issues, things that are important to you; things that are not going well in your life or as well you would like them to be going.”

We also support clients in decision-making about drugs. They set their own goals about using. One person might want to quit using, while another might want to set new limits. For those who want to change their drug use behavior, we check in with them about how they’re doing regarding their decision on a session-by-session basis. If they have setbacks, we’ll provide individualized support to help them figure out why, We’re not doubting them or trying to “catch” them. Rather, we’re helping them succeed with their own decisions to change. This type of check-in would not apply to individuals who have not yet decided to make changes.

 

Q: Many addiction programs feel that dealing with addiction should be the first priority and that other issues are secondary. What are your thoughts about this?

Dr. S.: I’ll start by saying that they have equal importance. Drug problems have everything to do with what is going on in a person’s life. And, a person’s life is very much affected by drug problems. I do want to say, however, that not everyone who winds up in an addiction program has an addiction. That’s a ridiculous generalization. They may be having problems with binge drinking, issues with family or jobs because of substance misuse, or legal problems because they were unlucky and got caught. (For instance they got arrested for another crime and tested positive for drugs.) They often wind up in places that require abstinence and wonder, “What am I doing here?” Then they’re told they’re “in denial.”

Traditional treatment tends to focus narrowly on drug problems, usually pushing an agenda of immediate abstinence. However, drug problems – whether or not they qualify as “addiction,” are very much connected to the rest of life. Therefore, clients need comprehensive counseling that addresses what’s happening in their overall lives and helps clients make their lives better. So it’s not all about use of substances and making the individual quit. The goal is to support clients and to help them make their own decisions about life and substance use.

We use the term “issues” – not “problems.” Whatever is most important to the individual that day is what we work on. A client might say, “I have an issue with my mother.” We don’t just want to have a discussion about the issue; we want to set a session goal so that a client gets practical help with an issue each time. Ideally we try to facilitate a next step, some sort of action that can be taken between sessions. We want to support our clients in making their own lives better. We like to reassure clients that we won’t be harping on drugs all the time: At least half of what we do is about everything else besides drugs. This means that counselors need to know how to help people with their other problems. Unfortunately, many have a narrow background in drug treatment and don’t yet know how to do that.

 

Q: How do you address the issue of “powerlessness” which a number of young people have told me they struggled with in12-step treatment programs they’ve attended? Don’t adolescents by nature resist anything that threatens to take away their autonomy?

Dr. S.: One of our main messages is “You are powerful; people do take control over their drug use. You have that power within you.” We also say, “You don’t need to do it alone. You are entitled to support. We’re behind you. We’re not saying it’s easy and there won’t be setbacks along the way. If there are, we’ll help you figure out why and how to handle it differently the next time. At the same time we’ll help you with other issues in your life so you’ll have less need for drugs.”

I think there is great harm in the all-or-nothing approach to drug and alcohol problems and that more people would come for help if they were not told that they’re powerless. Also, many more would come if they felt they could make a choice about drugs and did not expect to be coerced.

 

A New Version of The Seven Challenges

Following is the new adult version of Dr. Schwebel’s The Seven Challenges program:

  • Challenging Yourself to Make Thoughtful Decisions About Your Life, Including Your Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs
  • Challenging Yourself to Look at Your Responsibility and the Responsibility of Others for Your Problems
  • Challenging Yourself to Look at What You Like About Alcohol and Other Drugs, and Why You Use Them
  • Challenging Yourself to Honestly Look at Your Life, Including Your Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs 
  • Challenging Yourself to Look at Harm That Has Happened or Could Happen From Your Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs 
  • Challenging Yourself to Look at Where You Are Headed, Where You Would Like to Go, and What You Would Like to Accomplish
  • Challenging Yourself to Take Action and Succeed With Your Decisions About Your Life and Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs   

 

 
 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rehabs.com. We do believe in healthy dialogue on all topics and we welcome the opinions of our professional contributors.

What Are Your Thoughts on this Topic?

  • James Sharp

    Excellent article. The guidelines outlined are central to “person-centered care” in addiction treatment and consistent with research findings (see William Miller & Kathleen Carroll’s book, Rethinking Substance Abuse: What the Science Shows, and What We Should Do About It).