Most addiction workers are no longer addicts themselves.
For years, addiction therapists and counselors tended to be people who had been addicts themselves. These days, not so much. Drug and alcohol counselors who have experienced addiction firsthand represent a dwindling slice of the addiction therapy community.
But does it matter? A recent study by William L. White for the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation Services suggests strongly that it does not. The study, “Peer-based Addiction Recovery Support” (PDF), concluded that “Studies of addiction counselors in the United States havenotfound that addiction counselors in recovery are more or less effective than addiction counselors who are not in recovery....”
This is a good thing, if true, since the report also documents that the percentage of counselors in personal recovery within the “addiction workforce” has fallen from a high of almost 70 % in the early 1970s to about 30% as of 2008. It is unclear what is behind this trend, given that “studies of the personalities of recovering men and women working as addiction counselors reveal few differences from counselors without addiction recovery backgrounds.” White suggests that as the “educational levels of people in recovery have increased,” the perceived differences between counselors in recovery and those not in recovery “diminish or disappear completely.”
The bottom line for counselors: “The key determinants of effectiveness do not include recovery status.”
Nonetheless, White argues, attitudes toward workers in addiction treatment continued to be “plagued by misconceptions and stereotypes that are contradicted by most scientific studies. The prevailing view is that the majority of addiction counselors are in recovery; that most recovering counselors do not have college or advanced degrees; and that recovering counselors differ in their attitudes beliefs, knowledge, skills, and effectiveness” from counselors who have never experienced addiction.
Nowadays, as it turns out, none of these views is correct.
White’s paper also reiterated the sad fact that recovering addicts who work in addiction treatment “are paid less than people not in recovery for comparable work, even when their educational credentials are equal.”