If the spirit is truly willing, perhaps the
flesh is not so weak, after all.
Increased spirituality in teens undergoing
substance abuse treatment is associated with greater likelihood of abstinence
(as measured by toxicology screens), increased positive social behaviours, and
reduced narcissism, according to a study by researchers from The University of
Akron, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and Baylor University.
The study — part of CWRU's "Project
SOS" and "Helping Others Live Sober" research initiatives, two
ongoing studies of adolescent addiction — explored changes in daily spiritual
experiences of 195 substance-dependent adolescents, ages 14-18, who were court-referred
for treatment at New Directions, the largest adolescent residential treatment
facility in Northeast Ohio.
New Directions provides a range of
evidence-based therapies, including cognitive-behavioural therapy, motivational
enhancement therapy, group therapies, and relapse prevention and aftercare. New
Directions uses the 12-step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which
does not require participants to hold any particular religious beliefs.
Researchers measured "daily spiritual
experiences" independently of "religious beliefs and behaviours."
Daily spiritual experiences are not bound to any particular religious tradition
and include reported feelings of a divine presence, inner peace or harmony, and
selflessness and benevolence toward others.
The researchers found that, on the
"religious beliefs and behaviours" scale, adolescents reported a
range of belief orientations at intake, including atheist, agnostic, unsure,
non-denominational spiritual or denominational religious. The researchers also
found that most of the adolescents, regardless of their religious background or
denomination, reported having more daily spiritual experiences by the end of
the two month treatment period.
The study, funded by the John Templeton
Foundation, is the first to include detailed measures of both spirituality and
religiosity as independent variables at baseline and over the course of
treatment, while controlling for background characteristics and clinical severity,
says Co-Investigator Dr Matthew T. Lee, professor and chair of sociology at The
University of Akron. Professor Lee also is vice president of the Institute for
Research on Unlimited Love.
Participants, most of whom were marijuana
dependent (92%) with comorbid alcohol dependence (60%), were interviewed within
the first 10 days of treatment and two months later at treatment discharge.
Outcomes assessed included urine toxicology screens, alcohol/drug craving
symptoms, clinical characteristics, global psychosocial functioning, spiritual
experiences and religious behaviours.
Co-Investigator Dr Byron R Johnson,
director of the Institute for Studies of Religion and distinguished professor
of the social sciences at Baylor, notes that "although about a third of
the teens self-identified as agnostic or atheist at intake, two-thirds of whom
claimed a spiritual identity at discharge – a most remarkable shift."
More importantly, these changes strongly
predicted toxicology, narcissism and positive social behaviour, Lee says.
"The key message is that changes in
spiritual experiences are associated with better outcomes, including lower
toxicology, reduced self-centeredness, and higher levels of helping
others," Lee says.
AA theory of addiction
The study, one of the few involving teens
participating in Alcoholics Anonymous, "supports the AA theory of addiction – which views self-centeredness as a root cause – and suggests that this
approach would be helpful in designing treatment options for adolescents,"
The adolescents' capacity to become more
spiritual, and overcome self-centeredness, evidences the malleability of
personality and belief orientation, Lee says.
"Contrary to the conventional
wisdom," he says, "personality is not relatively fixed by late
adolescence, and Axis II disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder
can improve. What this means is that belief orientation, like personality more
generally, is malleable. Just because an adolescent is not spiritual prior to
participating in the treatment project, does not mean that they are incapable
of becoming spiritual. Our results demonstrate that if they do become
spiritual, they will tend to have much better outcomes."
Principal Investigator Dr Maria Pagano,
associate professor of psychiatry at CWRU's School of Medicine, suggests that
"changes in spirituality during treatment may serve as the 'switch' that
moves youth off of the track of substance dependency and onto the track of
recovery and enhanced well-being, thereby countering harmful social trends like
youth unemployment and decreased volunteering that have worked against addiction
"In other words," she adds,
"change is possible and spiritual experience may be the key. Hopefully our
results will encourage other researchers to further explore this thesis."