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New study identifies spiritual change among adolescents in treatment

November 15, 2013
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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A research team hopes that its latest study of factors that influence good outcomes in adolescents with substance use problems will lead more clinicians and programs to take a second look at spiritually based treatment approaches for youths.

The study, which will be published next spring in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, found that daily spiritual experiences (encompassing more than formal religious practices alone) served as a strong predictor of sobriety in a youth population with complex problems. Strikingly, while one-third of study participants had self-identified as agnostic or atheist at the start of the study, two-thirds of those individuals would claim some spiritual identity two months later, after receiving substance use treatment.

“There is some resistance to the [12-Step] model, but it’s something that’s important to consider,” says Matthew T. Lee, PhD, professor and chair of sociology at the University of Akron and lead author of the study. “There’s concern among some that it’s religious brainwashing or cult-like. I think it’s misunderstood by some clinicians.”

An interesting facet to the study involves its attempt to distinguish broader spirituality from the narrower realm of religious practices. This was intended not to put the two in a “horse race,” in Lee’s words, but to better understanding how they affect sobriety and other outcomes in young people.

Lee said that while formal religious practices at baseline predicted positive outcomes such as reduced narcissism at the two-month mark in this study, daily spiritual experiences on a broader scale were the most potent predictor of positive outcomes in the study.

Justice-involved population

Lee and colleagues first presented this research back in August at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in New York City. The study involved 195 substance-dependent adolescents ages 14 to 18 who received treatment at New Directions, a Northeast Ohio residential treatment facility for youths.

Co-investigator Maria Pagano, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, has worked with New Directions for several adolescent-focused research projects. This latest study is part of Case Western Reserve’s “Helping Others Live Sober” research initiative.

The vast majority of participants in this study were court-referred for treatment. “We wanted a population that really had multiple issues, not an easy one,” Lee said.

At treatment intake, the youths were asked both about their religious practices/beliefs and their daily spiritual experiences; the latter are not necessarily tied to a particular religious tradition and can involve sensing a divine presence, feeling inner peace, or having a sense of benevolence toward others. The latter is seen as an important variable because self-centeredness is believed to be at the root of many problems for addicts.

The young people were asked the same questions about religion and spirituality two months later, after receiving treatment in a New Directions program that has a 12-Step foundation but also uses modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy (MET).