Now in it’s 10th season, A&E’s reality show Intervention is extremely popular and influential on our culture’s beliefs and perceptions about addiction. At the beginning of every show, these words are superimposed over rapid-fire dramatic clips of someone abusing drugs or alcohol:
Most need help to stop.
I have many meaningful criticisms of both interventions in general and this show, but after 6 years of relentlessly showing this message, I think the most important thing I can say is that this one message is simply false. Yes it is true that millions of Americans experience addiction, but whether or not they need help to stop (especially the kind of help that Intervention is promoting) is another matter altogether.
Most Stop Without Help
The kind of help that Intervention refers to in their statement is addiction treatment – the kind provided by interventionists, substance abuse counselors, and inpatient and outpatient treatment programs. Contrary to their claim that “most need help to stop”, the fact is that most people stop their addictions without any such professional help. In fact, when we consider not only formal treatment, but also include seeking help from 12-step group involvement, clergymen, or talks with primary care doctors – the number of people who stop their addictions without help is still much higher than those who do get help. On average, according to wide-scale studies, 75% of people who stop their addictions do so without help. Here is the proof:
A 1992 study by the NIAAA, which was demographically representative of the US population, showed that 3/4 of people who ever had substance dependence (addiction), never sought help for it. Of the 3/4 who didn’t seek help, only 25.8% were still drinking abusively or dependently. Of the remaining 1/4 who did seek help/treatment, 33.2% were still drinking abusively or dependently. So, to look at it another way, 74.2% of those who didn’t get help, still managed to stop their addiction, while those in the much smaller group who “got help” fared worse, only 66.8% of them stopped their addiction.
In this particular study, out of a total of 3279 people who stopped their addictions, 824 of them got help, and 2455 of them didn’t get help – 75% stopped their addictions without help. A far greater number and a higher percentage of people stop their addictions on their own without treatment or help, than the number of people who stop their addictions with treatment or help, therefore the statement that “Most need help to stop” is patently false. Furthermore, in light of the 7.4 point gap between success of the untreated vs treated groups, it stands to reason that most people would be better off if they didn’t get treatment! Also, we should not overlook the fact that there is no evidence that the 25% of people who stopped while getting help actually needed that help or that they wouldn’t have stopped their addiction without help.
Beyond this study, there is a nearly identical follow up study that was conducted in 2002 which shows similar results, there are 2 similar studies done in Canada which show that 75-77.5% stop without help, and there was a famous study of Vietnam veterans which showed that 90% stopped their heroin addictions without help. The only valid studies for determining whether “help” or treatment is needed would be those that compare treated and untreated groups, and unfortunately such studies are rare, most only examine treated persons without a control group. The studies I listed above all have untreated control groups. Most reliable studies only focus on alcohol users rather than drug users, but the problems of both alcohol and drug addiction, and their solutions, are fundamentally the same. So again, A&E’s Intervention is lying when they say that “most need help to stop”, quite the contrary, most stop on their own, without help. By spreading the lie that “most need help to stop” they’re doing a disservice to society, they are spreading misinformation, they are convincing people that they can’t stop on their own when the fact is that they can stop on their own. This is dangerously irresponsible. Shame on Intervention.
What’s The Point?
Some readers may wonder why I bother to make this point, and where this leads. I assure you I’m not looking down on anyone who wants help, has gotten help, or thinks they need help to stop an addiction. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t attempt to help anyone. Mainly, I think it’s dangerous to spread the message that people need help to quit, when this isn’t true. I’m opposed to teaching people to be helpless. I think we can help people to help themselves, I know there are much better ways to help than what is currently offered. I know that people can and do change on their own, and I think we rob them of the chance to do that when highly influential media outlets and authority figures say that people can’t stop without help.