Emerging research finds that spirituality helps teens in treatment for substance abuse.
Researchers from The University of Akron, Case Western Reserve University and Baylor University determined increased spiritual experiences were associated with greater likelihood of abstinence (as measured by toxicology screens), increased positive social behaviors and reduced narcissism.
The study combined two ongoing studies of adolescent addiction and explored changes in daily spiritual experiences of 195 substance-dependent adolescents, ages 14-18.
The facility, called New Directions, provides a range of evidence-based therapies, including cognitive-behavioral 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.
For the study, researchers measured “daily spiritual experiences” independently of “religious beliefs and behaviors.”
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 behaviors” 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 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, said co-investigator Matthew T. Lee, Ph.D.
Participants, most of whom were marijuana dependent (92 percent) with comorbid alcohol dependence (60 percent), 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 behaviors.
Co-investigator Byron R. Johnson, Ph.D., said 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 important, these changes strongly predicted toxicology, narcissism and positive social behavior, Lee said.
“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 said.
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,” Johnson said.
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 said, “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 Maria Pagano, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at CWRU’s School of Medicine, suggested 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 recovery.”
“In other words,” she said, “change is possible and spiritual experience may be the key. Hopefully our results will encourage other researchers to further explore this thesis.”
This article first appeared on ‘Psych Central’ on 15 November 2013.