The Addiction Therapist’s Guide to the 21st Century

Rehab Helps Thousands of Addicts Quit. It Can Help You, Too.

You may have to unlearn much of what you have been trained to do.

Drug use is being legalized in the United States, and it’s causing fewer personal and social problems than we imagined. In Colorado, traffic fatalities and crime were down in 2014, the first year of legalized marijuana. In California, results were similar under its 2010 decriminalization (reduction to a violation and small fine) of marijuana possession – leading to the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which decriminalized cocaine, meth, and heroin possession.

What is clear is that drug use, on its own, is no longer considered a pathology or a problem. Indeed, this has been recognized by DSM-IV and -5, both of which categorize substance use disorders (SUDs) in terms of problems caused by use of any substance, and not simply consumption of special categories of drugs. This is also true for relapses. While AA regards any use as falling off the wagon, DSM requires the demonstration of a problem in order to categorize a person as having a relapse. The meaning of what 12-steppers call being in recovery or sober, both of which are misnomers as typically used, has changed.

In this new substance use world, here are five prevailing principles for counselors to remember in treatment:

  • Harm reduction is the aim.

If you, as a therapist, are incapable of dealing with clients on this [harm reduction] basis, you are in the wrong business in the 21st Century.-Stanton Peele

Without our abstinence fixation to guide treatment, we need instead to always examine the harms any substance is causing a person. If they drink and drive, or take drugs and have sex, how can they forestall problematic behaviors even if they continue to use? Should they stay home when they drink or drug? Should they use only with friends? Should they take steps to make sure they cannot drive when they are “psychoactive” (pity poor Audrey Kishline Conn and her victims, killed when she drove drunk), or have sex only with reliable partners? These practical decisions need to be thought through with a trustworthy therapist who isn’t aghast at the idea of continued use by the client. If you, as a therapist, are incapable of dealing with clients on this basis, you are in the wrong business in the 21st Century.

  • Addiction and alcoholism are abstractions—problems are foremost.

The newest edition of DSM (5) does not use the terms alcoholism and addiction—except in regards to gambling! Rather than looking for what we regard as the classic symptoms of addiction (supposedly withdrawal and tolerance), DSM simply adds up the severity of problems due to use of a substance by the individual. This is a recognition that addiction is a variable syndrome and, by itself, is not the defining problem—the totality of consequences due to use are what concern us. And so, counselors, your job is not to ferret out admissions of addiction, but to identify the specific substance problems the individual has and to direct your attention to these.

Once again, I fear 12-step counselors are at a serious disadvantage, since they are taught that treatment revolves around such self-labeling.

  • Labeling/shaming is to be avoided at all costs!

Shaming people does not produce good results, and in fact exacerbates relapses.-Stanton Peele

It is not only that treatment should address problems. It is that clients regarding themselves primarily as an addict or alcoholic is, in and of itself, harmful to the individual. This act of labeling makes it less likely that they will achieve true recovery—or, indeed, even abstinence. What passes for treatment in the United States is often based on shaming (as in requiring people to list their sins and offenses, and then to seek God’s forgiveness). Shaming people does not produce good results, and in fact exacerbates relapses. Once again, traditional treatment adherents are pointed very much in the wrong direction.

  • Addressing life issues is essential in treatment.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) has redefined recovery as:

Recovery is a process of change whereby individuals work to improve their own health and wellness and to live a meaningful life in a community of their choice while striving to achieve their full potential.

SAMHSA builds recovery around four pillars: health, home, purpose, and community. All of these things can be related to substance use as both a cause and a result. But these aspects of people’s lives all have independent meaning and importance in treatment. To ignore them is to fail to provide adequate care.

  • Look beyond the walls of therapy, towards independence and empowerment.

…it is not adherence to treatment rules, customs, slogans, and precepts by which we judge a client’s progress.-Stanton Peele

Too often treatment is circumscribed within the four walls of the therapist’s office or therapy group (or church basement). But once we choose to focus on the individual’s entire life, we see that this can only be determined by behaviors far away from the treatment site, and going forward far beyond the treatment time frame. In other words, it is not adherence to treatment rules, customs, slogans, and precepts by which we judge a client’s progress. It is their ability to handle their own lives and to care for themselves. Producing such independence and empowerment is the ultimate measure of therapy’s success.

As we can see, all of these characteristics of good therapy require us to redirect conventional addiction and alcoholism treatment as practiced in the U.S. It is only by doing so that we can meet the challenges of the changing substance use world—changes that we are already confronting in Colorado and around the country.
Photo Source: Pixabay

What Are Your Thoughts on this Topic?

  • André Pampel

    Good post, thanks Stanton.

  • Eve Gersich

    That’s a very real and sustainable way to look at addiction and recovery. Thank you for sharing.

    • Stanton Peele

      Thanks to you both — I’m glad you found my thinking helpful.

      • George Youngblood

        As the CEO of an adolescent SUD recovery program, I have been stomping my feet for years about the harm we do to teens by labeling them as addicts.
        Firstly, any substance use by teens should be discouraged, but we need more research on global functioning and interventions that improve satisfaction and fulfillment.
        My experience is there are a lot of teens who just “mature out of the problem.” Lets stop lumping our kids into the same category as adults who have experienced decades of chronic use.
        Please speak out any where you can, because some of our approaches are no only ineffective, but actually harmful to young people.

        • Stanton Peele

          George – It’s so good to have you on board. Do reach out to me.

          • George Youngblood

            I would love to talk to you about some amazing things happening in Houston related to teen recovery. My email is

  • Juliann

    SHARING your work here, everywhere I can, including a free support community I am trying to start that outlines all of these principles called No Judgment Recovery link to, technical difficulties are making a slow go of it but I thank you deeply for the knowledge and inspiration …

  • Dan Bigg

    Excellent perspective! I would have added specifics of a ‘therapist’ giving concrete assistance with harm reduction such as assistance with access to sufficient supplies of safer injection equipment (for those injecting) and knowledge about and access to naloxone for all opioid using individuals. Ultimately, a 21st Century therapist would have these two concrete elements within their practice — if, for no other reason than emphasizing the dramatic lifesaving utility of these competencies!

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