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Examining Addiction of Mood-Altering Substances through Complexity Theory

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Mood-altering substances continue to plague our society, and the answers to how to adequately address this issue are still challenging to find. Many factors contribute to those who struggle with addiction. Mental health issues, past trauma from physical/sexual abuse, and problem recognition are some underlying issues driving illicit substance use (I wrote about problem recognition as it relates to addiction). It strikes me as prudent to develop strategies that can use a holistic approach to individuals who struggle with substance use.

           Complexity Theory offers a different lens through analyzing addiction and developing possible approaches to mitigate harm.  

What does Complexity Theory entail?  

           It states that systems begin as collections of individual participants who organize themselves and create relationships. These relationships form in response to positive or negative feedback, although a degree of randomness is also involved. New structures and behaviors then emerge as actors act and react to each other (Snyder,2013).

           Complexity Theory is historically well applied in the scientific disciplines, although increasingly used in social work, health, criminal justice, and psychology (Fish and Hardy,2015).

What are the significant components of Complexity Theory?

  • Self-Organization- Order emerges out of initially homogeneous or disordered states.
  • Non-linear systems- are influenced by the chaos theory; for example, “a butterfly could flap his wings in China and cause a tornado in Texas.” Small actions introduced early on lead to exponential consequences at a later time.
  • Network Theory- The understanding that data is king. Evidence-based information offers a more accurate view of how systems function. Think graph theory and computer science.
  • Adaptive Systems- Examines how individuals behavior determines the levels of cooperation and competition within a system. Think evolutionary game theory.

How would Complexity Theory explain the addiction cycle? 

           Chipawe et al. (2022) did a qualitative study on 13 women who were recently in substance abuse treatment, viewing their experience through the lens of Complexity Theory. While the sample size was small, it did give a clear view regarding the difficulty of addressing the many needs of those who struggle with addiction.

           A significant obstacle for the participants was the inability to get their needs adequately met. For instance, 8 of 13 individuals had mental health issues and a substance use disorder. However, many substance use treatment centers only dealt with addiction; they had to go to another agency to address their mental health concerns. Due to other debilitating factors in their lives (homelessness, physical health issues, domestic violence), attending their appointments consistently was a problem.

           The complexity theory sees linear thinking as an issue. To send all individuals who struggle with addiction to treatment but not address the other issues is a one size fits all approach. Go to step A first and then to step B. The non-linear process would seem to indicate trying to treat each individual based on their needs. Therefore, a co-occurring (mental health and substance use) program and a housing component for some participants would be better suited to address more concerns at one facility instead of sending an unstable individual to multiple agencies.

           An additional problem for the participants in the study was unclean treatment environments and negative interactions with staff at the facilities. Many participants mentioned that the different treatment centers were gloomy and dirty. They also reported having negative interactions with staff that discouraged them from continuing in the program.

Photo by Sera Cocora: pexels

           The adaptive systems element of complexity theory speaks about how cooperation between individuals determines a system’s functioning. If staff is considered rude and discouraging, that will hurt treatment retention. Also, the staff is responsible for making their environments welcoming. Dirty and gloomy facilities can negatively affect people who are already vulnerable.  

           This study demonstrates the many issues with those seeking treatment. It reveals that human beings are complex systems. Many internal and external factors impact how we behave. As the study shows, a one size fits all model will not work for those whose issues are long-standing and severe. A big step will require a system to become more collaborative in treating individuals. Reducing barriers to recovery based on meeting each client’s needs is a logical step.

           Addiction will continue to impact our society. Developing solutions to treat better those who struggle with substance use is essential. The financial and social burden substance use puts on the population suggests we need to do a better job an investing in institutions that lead to better outcomes. Complexity theory does give us an excellent insight into the depth of the addiction problem. We must take notice and encourage our system to become more efficient in helping those who struggle with substance use.

Vertis Williams is a Positive Habits Life Coach and a Mindfulness Trainer. He is a regular presenter at employee and team-development events. Contact him to request more info on his Workshops or on his Coaching Services! Click HERE to Request a Complimentary Habit Coaching Session!

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