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Are Substance Abuse Courses Included In Applied Behavior Analysis Programs?

Are Substance Abuse Courses Included In Applied Behavior Analysis Programs?Just like with general mental health disorders, substance abuse disorders are on the rise. In 2020, the pandemic was a factor that caused drug overdoses and deaths to increase. This added to the problematic Opioid crisis, along with an increase in Heroin, Fentanyl, and prescription medication abuse, 2020 has been considered the most deadly year for substance users (Addiction Center). 

According to the CDC, “Nearly 841,000 people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose. In 2019, 70,630 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States.”

Drug Overdose statisticsWhile addiction is highly genetic, professionals cannot simply pinpoint one causing factor for why someone has a substance abuse disorder. There are environmental, societal, economic, and physical factors to take into account, as well as the user’s past. Some individuals suffering from substance abuse have been through trauma in the past and using is their only known coping skill. Many people’s drug of choice is quickly and highly addictive, leaving the user in an unfortunate cycle of addiction. 

With the popularity of television programs like Euphoria and Narcos, substance abuse is often glamorized and not portrayed as realistically as it actually is. However, with other TV shows such as Intervention, the main point is to get help to the people with substance abuse issues. 

Some people may be interested in getting their certification in Applied Behavior Analysis, yet are not as interested in working in a school setting or with children and adults with developmental delays or autism. Many are more attracted to working in a clinical setting or the homes and communities of those with substance abuse disorders. 

Applied Behavior Analysis is such a flexible field to work in. Essentially anyone who can benefit from modifying and replacing problematic behaviors can improve while working with an ABA professional. Those who struggle with addiction can work with behavior analysts to hone in on specific maladaptive coping skills and behaviors and over time, learn to change behaviors for good. 

If you are interested in becoming an ABA professional and prefer to work with individuals who are trying to curtail their addictive behaviors, this is a viable option.

A Working Definition

Merriam Webster defines behavioral science this way: it is “a branch of science that deals primarily with human action and often attempts to generalize about human behavior in society.” 

Behavioral analysis is the research into specific kinds of human action and reaction to their environment. Applied behavioral analysis is the implementation of the conclusions derived from the research in addressing the issues. 

The science began in the 1960s with the work of BF Skinner, Fred Keller, and others. They interviewed people in institutions who had poor adaptability skills and used the insights gained to fuel intervention programs that proved successful. 

The applied science is interdisciplinary, using concepts from social and cultural anthropology, psychology and psychiatry, social sciences, and aspects of biology, law, political science, and other areas to explain human behavior and design interventions.

Where is the Research Applied?

Those who have eating disorders and those who are looking to lose weight in a healthy way can benefit from working with an applied behavior analyst.Those in education use behavior analysis to design programs and curriculum addressing the needs of special learners. Children with developmental disabilities and those with autism benefit from ABA strategies in school and at home, although ABA can also be used with adults. 

The science of ABA has implications in profiling criminals, as many who watch Criminal Minds may notice. 

Those who have eating disorders and those who are looking to lose weight in a healthy way can benefit from working with an applied behavior analyst. Changing maladaptive behaviors, setting goals, and tracking progress are what it’s all about. 

Even animals can visit a behavioralist. There are professionals out there who specialize in modifying inappropriate animal behaviors, such as aggression, toileting in the house, or those animals who have high anxiety. A consultant can help create a treatment plan for dogs, cats, and some other animals. 

Individual athletes and team performance can greatly improve with the use of ABA techniques during training and practice. Coaches can learn and implement them, but analysts can also be hired by schools and professional teams to come in and help out. 

The techniques are also used in businesses and organizations where analysts are contracted out to go in and assess the needs of the entire group as well as individuals. Business leaders are people who get things accomplished through the efforts of others. The website CLG.com points out that managing the behaviors of others is vital to affecting change in an organization. To manage group behaviors, you must first understand the dynamics involved. 

Lastly, applied behavioral analysis is also used to help people with problems in substance abuse. Alcoholism and addiction cost the US $484 billion a year and 31 percent of homeless people suffer the effects of the disease. This goes to show that there is a great need for applied behavior analysts to work in the field of addiction treatment. 

How Does ABA Work With Individuals with Substance Abuse Disorders?

Over time, addiction is a learned behavior. The process of using substances becomes a habit and is fueled by a need to gain something (e.g., the high feeling, new friends, experiences) or to get rid of something (e.g., a difficult emotion or memories from the past). 

There are not only environmental and societal factors that influence addiction but biological and neurological factors as well. 

Dr. Roy A. Wise, Senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, suggested that dopamine release strongly reinforces the behavior of repetitive drug use. Moreover, repeated drug use leads to sensitization that overly incentivizes the act of taking drugs. The sensitization of dopamine release causes excessive drug cravings, which lead to addictive behavior, (NSS). 

Classical (or Pavlovian) Conditioning plays a huge role here. If an alcoholic walks by the same bar or liquor store and goes in every single day, and s/he continues to do so, there will be a dopamine response in the brain encouraging her/him to grab a drink once more. Until some drastic changes are made, the alcoholic will continue to have an almost automatic response to seeing a bar or liquor store. 

Also, thinking even outside the genetic and environmental factors of addiction, there are various barriers to treatment to take into consideration.

According to the experts at Continuum Recovery Center in Colorado, some examples of barriers to substance abuse treatment include:

  • Cost of treatment
  • No support system
  • Location
  • Fear/Anxiety
  • Lack of insurance
  • Culture or religion
  • Bad past experiences
  • Lack of knowledge 
  • Making comparisons
  • Inaccessibility
  • Privacy concerns 
  • A change in family status
  • Childcare
  • Co-occurring disorders 
  • Denial

These are important things for ABA professionals to keep in mind when working with individuals with substance abuse disorders.

Positive Reinforcement 

Using positive reinforcement is a huge ABA strategy that is effective with addicts in recovery. Using positive reinforcement is a huge ABA strategy that is effective with addicts in recovery. 

An example of how positive reinforcement is used with addicts is through a voucher system.

Voucher-based reinforcement is one of the most widely used contingency management interventions. It proved successful in treating cocaine dependence in the early 1990s. The client receives a voucher of monetary value for negative drug toxicology results. Voucher programs use a unique schedule of increasing reinforcement. The monetary value of the voucher increases with each consecutive negative drug test. The incentives reset if the client misses a scheduled screening or tests drug-positive, (NSS). 

There are other ways in which recovering addicts can be positively reinforced to not use. Sometimes treatment teams need to get creative and think outside of the box and take into account each client’s needs.

ABA professionals cannot be the only people to work with addicts. Those in addiction treatment need an entire team of psychiatrists, psychologists, medical doctors, nutritionists, and other holistic professionals to help them come up with a plan and stick to recovery. Applied behavior analysts can work closely with the treatment team to help teach and enforce positive behaviors and new coping skills. 

What Courses are Included in the Degree Curriculum?

Undergraduate degree programs are an overview of the field and contain reviews of the historical and current literature, general studies in behavior deviations, and courses in substance abuse. Because the field is multidisciplinary, students have courses in psychology, social sciences, and other fields. 

They learn how to address problems as members of teams and study how the environment affects behavior, a major goal of applied behavioral analysis, according to the APA Handbook of Behavioral Analysis. They also learn how to control their own biases in working with diverse populations, and how to apply the fundamentals of scientific research methodology in their research. 

Graduate programs allow students to specialize, and one specialty is addictive behaviors. Applied behavioral analysis is critical to treating alcoholics and addicts because counselors and others must identify environmental stresses and teach their clients and patients adaptive behaviors. Applied behavior analysts work in rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and as consultants in managing addictions.

Conclusion to Are Substance Abuse Courses Included In Applied Behavior Analysis Programs?

If you are considering a career as an applied behavior analyst, you will likely earn a master’s degree because it is the standard for management positions in the field. Your curriculum may not offer specific alcoholism or drug abuse courses, but they will be included in the study of deviant behaviors. That is not to say that you cannot seek those courses out, specifically if you want to work with that population of clients. Helping people with addiction problems is critical to successful societal living and that is why, with other pertinent classes, schools include substance abuse courses in behavioral analyst programs.

Brittany Cerny

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

Updated June 2021

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