The treatment system fails because it’s rooted in an entrenched, inaccurate view that addicts are morally bereft and weak. If they weren’t, the belief goes, they’d stop using when drugs began to negatively impact their lives. Most treatment centers in the U.S. are based on an archaic philosophy that’s rooted in the 12-step model of recovery. These programs have saved countless lives, but they don’t work for a majority of people who try them. It’s not a fault in the program itself. Its founder, Bill Wilson, wrote, “These are but suggestions.” But many rehabs require them. This is particularly problematic for teenagers and young adults, the very people most susceptible to addiction. Twelve-step programs require people to accept their powerlessness and turn their lives over to God or another higher power. Many adolescents question religion, and in general teenagers aren’t going to turn their lives over to anyone.
In many 12-step-based programs, patients are berated and yelled at if they don’t “surrender” and practice the steps. They’re warned — in some cases, threatened — that if they don’t, they’ll relapse and die. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Addicts don’t think they can be treated if they don’t embrace the program, and so they give up on the idea that they can be helped. They do relapse. Some die. When they do, they’re blamed. Blaming the victims is convenient for those who treated them, because it absolves them of accountability. They can take credit when their patients get well, but they take no responsibility when they don’t. But the bigger problem with 12 steps is that a growing body of evidence has proved that addiction isn’t a choice subject to willpower but a brain disease that’s chronic, progressive and often fatal