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Internet addiction treatment programs on the rise

September 30, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Whether every clinician believes it is a “real” addiction or not, internet addiction has been around for many years and the programs to treat this behavioral addiction are quickly sprouting up as well.

Hilarie Cash, PhD, LMHC, has been doing private practice work for over 30 years. When she decided to move her private practice to Seattle 19 years ago, she says this is when she began to see clients who were experiencing internet addiction.

When Cash met Cosette Dawna Rae, MSW, LICSW, LMP, who was a 20-year IT professional who had made the career move into the addiction treatment field, the two agreed on the need for a residential program.  Soon after, reSTART: Internet Addiction Recovery Program (Fall City, Wa.) was born.

Program literature for reSTART describes the program as a “retreat.” Cash says it’s a voluntary therapeutic retreat away from the world so individuals can focus on the therapy they need. The program, which accepts men 18 and over (although Cash says most of them are between 18 and 28), focuses on a structured healthy lifestyle. This includes things such as eating healthy, meditating, exercising five days a week, participating in wilderness adventures and other recreational activities and learning many basic life skills.

Since the diagnosis is not yet official (although it is mentioned in the DSM-5 as requiring further research), it is currently a self-pay treatment.

The first three weeks, “the detox phase,” helps clients’ brains restore the dopamine receptors and Cash says the men start feeling much better after this period. “All of the depression, anxiety and irritability starts clearing up and their thinking gets better,” she explains.

Throughout their 45-90 days at the retreat, the individuals work on a life balance plan –their plan for moving forward, going back out into the world and having to deal with digital technology and other possible co-occurring addictions. 

After their plan is set and through participation in the program the staff can tell that they’re ready to graduate from that first phase, individuals can then choose to move to the “Transitions” program. Here the individuals live in apartments with an on-site office, a therapist who does individual and group therapy and a computer lab that is supervised. During this time, they can work on their long-term plan (getting jobs, going back to school, etc.) but remain in a structured and protected living situation in case they need ongoing help. Living in the apartments can last 6 months or longer, depending on how long the individual needs it.

A man’s addiction?

The reSTART program started out as a co-ed program, but leaders made the decision to be a male-only program after only seeing a few women come in for treatment over the years. Cash believes that while it is very possible for women to get addicted to the Internet, the effect on their lives is usually milder, so they are still able to manage their lives well enough.

“Speaking stereotypically, my experience is that women are much more interested in interpersonal relationships, and from an early stage, women tend to be more involved and interested in developing their social skills. I think that really helps inoculate them against the addiction to a considerable extent,” Cash explains. “There definitely are some women who get completely lost in this world. I’m not suggesting that they don’t get addicted, but because they are continuing to function better, they don’t end up on our doorstep. Whereas when the guys get lost in that world, they tend to just jump off the cliff and really go down.”

The male population may be more susceptible to this type of addiction because many times they have failed to develop good social skills, or because they are socially anxious. The internet and/or video games may become the reinforcing of the escapist cycle, Cash says.

“The technology offers this escape from the challenges of the real world and particularly from the social world that you’re anxious about,” Cash says.

Co-morbid conditions

Cash says all individuals arrive with some co-occurring mental health condition. At the very least when they arrive they are anxious and depressed, she says.

For many of the internet addicts, the anxiety and depression lifts after they detox. Some take medications that can be stopped, and some need to continue the medication in order to function.

Other co-morbid conditions Cash has seen in internet addicts include: