Understanding Addiction

When considering the relationship between applied social psychology and health, one would be remiss in overlooking the topic of substance abuse. Addiction, while often incorrectly treated as an issue of poor self-control or will power, is at its heart a social problem. Therefore the solution to substance abuse problems in our society must consider a biopsychosocial approach.

In an article for The New York Times, Gabrielle Glaser focused on the work of Dr. Mark Willenbring, an addiction psychiatrist. Dr. Willenbring, unhappy with the current approach to treating addiction, developed his own center to assist addicts in achieving a healthier lifestyle (Glaser, 2016). In many ways his approach would fall under the category of a biopsychosocial intervention. A biopsychosocial approach is one that looks at health from the perspective of biology, psychology, and social factors (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).

Dr. Willenbring first looks at addiction from a biological perspective. He educates his clients in the role that genetics plays on substance abuse. Not only is this scientifically accurate, it allows those dealing with addictions to recognize that despite what they may have been told in more traditional treatment programs, addiction is not simply a personal or moral failure. He also takes in to consideration psychological factors. During the initial diagnostic process, he screens patients for underlying mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, in order to determine if these factors may be hampering their recovery process. He also considers the social aspect of addiction. He recognizes the need for those in the recovery process to have healthy social groups to support their efforts. Dr. Willenbring uses a multifaceted approach including medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and group therapy sessions to tackle addiction like a disease instead of as a failure of character (Glaser, 2016).

Dr. Willenbring’s treatment protocols are considered by some to be controversial. As previously stated, traditional programs generally preach faith and complete abstinence. Dr. Willenbring, in contrast, approaches addition like a chronic disease that needs to be tended over time, but whose treatment plan must be based in empirically tested scientific data. He also believes that there has been a failure for existing programs to accept what the most current research is telling us about the treatment of addiction (Glaser, 2016). In many ways, this is an example of why it is so necessary for intervention programs to have an evaluation process. The evaluation process is essential in determining if the current intervention strategies are functioning as designed, and whether they are financially responsible investments (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012). Glaser’s (2016) article cites multiple sources that suggest that addiction is escalating in this country, and the traditional treatment of faith-based programs and in-patient treatment facilities, are perhaps not as effective or efficient, as they could be. One of the most recommended options for recovery is in-patient treatment in a rehab facility, yet despite the high cost, there is no reliable evidence that these facilities are any more effective than Dr. Willenbring’s inexpensive out-patient program (Glaser, 2016).

Applied social psychologists have an ethical obligation to find ways to promote affordable and evidence based intervention strategies for fighting addiction. The fact that hundreds of millions of dollars are being funneled in to programs that may not be meeting the criteria for being effective or efficient is a travesty. We, like the rest of the scientific community, must adjust existing programs to stay current to the best available research. If we do that, we can take significant steps in helping those suffering from addiction, as well as strengthen our communities in order to prevent future problems.



Glaser, G. (2016, February 22). For Mark Willenbring, substance abuse treatment begins with research. The New York Times. Retrieved February 24, 2016,          from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/science/mark-willenbring-addiction-substance-abuse-treatment.html?ref=health&_r=0

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

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