Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Urge: Our History of Addiction, by Carl Erik Fisher

The Urge: Our History of Addiction, by Carl Erik Fisher is a good book about the history of addiction, weaved together with a story of the author's own alcohol use problems and rehab.  

The original use of the word "addiction," as Fisher shows us, was more general or broad, referring to situations we might now consider "behavioural addictions," habit problems, or just very strong preferences.    This usage of the word, despite objections from some addictions specialists, may be most accurate from a neurobiological point of view, according to recent evidence.  

He emphasizes many times how addictive phenomena lie on a continuum of severity in different people and within the same person at different points in time, and are influenced strongly by social, economic, and political circumstances.   For some people addiction is a symptom of, or a means of coping with, horrible environmental circumstances.  For others, it is a trap leading to loss of control even when environmental circumstances have improved or are normal.  

Understanding and helping addiction problems has had an interesting history, with some compassionate medical and community help approaches evolving since the 1800s, but often interrupted or negatively influenced by social factors such as stigma or criminalization.  

I agree with his conclusions, that addiction treatments need to be individualized, and that there can be various different causes or problems which underlie addiction for different people.  AA or other 12-step groups can be valuable for many people, but this is not the only effective approach.  Other group styles, such as the "SMART" program, can be preferred.  Abstinence-based models of treatment may be preferred or necessary for some people, but for others it is effective to aim only for moderation without abstinence.  Some people do not want or need peer or group support, and prefer one-on-one counseling.  Others may prefer to manage their addictive problems alone; Fisher cites data showing that many people with addictions can recover without any therapeutic treatment at all.   There are medications that can help, such as naltrexone.  

Fisher acknowledges the importance of loss of control in addiction, and of the phenomenon of denial which delays or prevents many people from seeking help.  

There have been big problems in addiction management that must change.  First, there needs to be much more availability of addiction treatment programs for those who desire or need them.  There should not be economic biases causing some groups to have less access than others.  For opiate addiction in particular, there needs to be easier availability of methadone or buprenorphine maintenance for those who would like to try this approach.  Harm reduction strategies in general have a very strong evidence base.  

Second, public health interventions can be simple and effective, such as restricting the advertising or marketing of addictive products (such measures have been useful for reducing tobacco use in the population).  There is still a big corporate influence on policy (from the alcohol or gambling industries, for example), which should not be allowed to continue.   Third, there should be less focus on prohibition and criminal punishments, which in general have often made addiction problems worse, particularly by focusing expensive social resources on law enforcement rather than on community improvement and rehabilitation.  

Friday, March 4, 2022

Belief Bubbles, Delusions, and Overvalued Ideas

 One of the most important posts that I've written on my blog, in my opinion, has been "Political polarization, propaganda, conspiracy theories, and vaccine hesitancy: a psychiatric approach to understanding and management," initially published on September 1, 2021 but edited and updated numerous times since then.   I check periodically how many people visit my blog, and I see that there are relatively few.  If I could recommend just one of my articles to be published widely, it would be that one, since I think it is so important regarding individual and public mental and physical health issues in the world today.  

The topics in that post focused on misinformation, propaganda, and deluded beliefs regarding the pandemic.    

I frequently see similar issues at play in my daily work as a psychiatrist.  

What causes fixed false beliefs?  When would we call these "delusions" as opposed to overvalued ideas, or simply examples of erroneous thinking?  

In psychotic states, the mind creates delusional beliefs without any reinforcement from a social community.  This is caused by genetic factors, abnormalities in dopamine circuitry in the brain, magnified by psychosocial stress.  As a result of the individual nature of psychotic illness, fellow members of the community can easily recognize the problem, and hopefully attempt to help.  Such delusional beliefs are unlikely to spread in a social network.  

There are examples of "shared psychotic disorders" in which an individual may have a primary psychotic illness, leading to close associates or family members adopting the same beliefs.  But this is a relatively rare phenomenon.  

A much more challenging problem occurs when false beliefs are spread in a social network.  In this case, the beliefs may or may not have anything directly to do with the other beliefs or values within the social network .  For example, extremist anti-vax beliefs are more common in particular religious or political groups, but vaccines have very little to do with theology or ideology.   The process of ideological spreading in these cases is analogous to what Dawkins calls a "meme", though driven not by a natural selection process, but by a process akin to "sexual selection."   In "sexual selection" traits such as peacock feathers propagate together with traits for recognizing and desiring the initial trait.  For example, bird songs or feather colours are sexually selected due to the song or feather itself and the desire of other birds to recognize or value the song or feather.  The song or feather comes to be an emblem of the species itself, rather than having other adaptive or communicative value (bright or decorative feathers do not lead to improved flight).  Many examples of "mass delusion" such as anti-vax beliefs are likely similar; they have become emblems of membership in particular religious or political communities, which are found to be attractive by those within the communities, even though the beliefs are harmful to the group and contrary to the group's positive values.  In this way, they are ironically similar to a virus:  anti-vax dialogue and behaviour has become much more prevalent or even dominant in these religious or political groups, such that the groups' core values or policies are utterly neglected or contradicted.   People from outside these groups would be disgusted by this phenomenon, leading to the groups becoming more insular, decried as hypocritical and immoral by outsiders, and obviously less able to offer charismatic outreach.  In particular, values such as love, care, and freedom are profoundly contradicted by beliefs which decry life-saving public health protections.  

Anti-vaccine and other "anti-public-health" propaganda is extremely harmful to society; it causes needless suffering, death, and economic hardship.  The propagation of such ideas is shockingly dissonant with the core values of many of the groups associated with it.  Disparate groups have endorsed such beliefs, leading to an unusual medley of fundamentalist religious groups, biker gangs, and racist groups joining in protests or defiance against vaccine and public health mandates. 

It is very difficult to address or improve problems of this sort.  When beliefs have been adopted as an emblem of a tight-knit social community, they are strengthened greatly by group association, and group members will defend these ideas from outsiders, almost like people might defend their home or family from invaders.   These ideas become adopted as almost sacred core values,  as though the beliefs (in this case about vaccination, wearing masks, etc.) were enshrined in a sacred religious text such as the Bible.  

As with psychotic illness, there are degrees of severity.  In mild cases of psychosis, affected people may be able to question their beliefs or request help; in more severe cases they have the insight to know that others would see their beliefs as paranoid, so they are able to refrain from discussing their beliefs, even though they still are fully believing their delusions.  In more severe cases, people will start expressing, or casually "slipping in"  the paranoid ideas in casual conversation (even with a psychiatrist) almost as though to test or evaluate the conversational partner, perhaps to seek a kindred believer or to be warned about a "nonbeliever."  As with some examples of religious practice, "believers" may seek to attempt to "convert" others as though expressing the delusion has a sacred value.   

I think it's pretty important as a psychiatrist to gently inform people that there are delusional beliefs going on.  With entrenched delusions this may need to be done with the greatest care and empathy, but I do think it needs to be discussed at least a little bit, otherwise there is a risk of the person feeling their delusions have been endorsed.  In the case of socially-spread overvalued ideas, it's a more difficult process to address in a therapy setting.  In some cases the discussion risks spreading to a focus on ideas concerning religious or cultural beliefs, which are generally off-base.  But when new "contagious" beliefs are spreading in a social network, straddling the boundary between a "cultural belief" and a "delusion," unbridled and harmful spreading is more likely.  This is similar to the epidemiological dynamics of COVID itself:  COVID is deadly, but its death rate is low enough to insert itself into populations in a seemingly harmless way, until a few weeks or months later when hospitals and ICUs are overflowing with severe cases.  Ironically, if the mortality rate of COVID was much higher, it might be easier to control at a community level, because there would be more unity of action.

As I discussed in my "political polarization" post, there are many social actions that can help this situation.  It is most valuable for rational, persuasive pro-vaccine, pro-public-health members of affected social groups (such as religious leaders, truckers, political leaders on both sides of the political spectrum, police, military personnel, alternative health care providers, and people formerly part of the anti-vax movement but who have changed their position) to speak out as educators and leaders.   Scientists and public health officials, etc. should still do their best to offer effective public communication, with efforts to reach out to these groups, but they are less likely to have a substantial impact in these communities, since they will be dismissed or derided as threatening outsiders.   Some of the communicative efforts from scientific leaders could at least involve building a better rapport with disparate communities, so that scientists would not be seen as elitist or part of an "ivory tower," out of touch with the rest of the population.    Meanwhile, there is evidence that the rest of us should continue to do our best to combat the spread of misinformation, and to do our best to speak the truth, rationally, resisting the urge to give up in frustration.