Study finds rewards help addicts

A recent WSU study tested whether a rewards method, called contingency management, could help mental illness patients who also abuse alcohol and other drugs.

WSU associate professor Michael McDonell said he has been attempting to find simple, low cost methods that could assist mental illness patients who struggle with abusing substances that cause harm to themselves, as well as their prospects for a better future.

The study found that giving rewards, generally in the form of low cost items such as shampoo and DVD players, significantly decreased the abuse by participants of not only alcohol, but tobacco and cocaine as well, according to a WSU news release.

“The rewards bring something positive to their lives and help them build success, confidence, and self-esteem,” McDonell said. “It gives them something to look forward to.”

Specifically, in the 12-week study, McDonell found that those in the rewards group were three times less likely to test positively for alcohol in their system than those in the control group who received no rewards, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Participants in the rewards group were five times less likely to test positively for tobacco and three times less likely to test positively for cocaine than the control group, according to the WSU News release.

“The take home is that on a lot of different measures of alcohol use we saw large decreases in use,” McDonell said. “We also saw differences in cocaine and smoking. We think that as people stop using alcohol, they stop using other drugs, as most people use these drugs together, especially alcohol and cigarettes.”

Another key to this study was that gifts and opportunities to get certain gifts were randomized, he said. Every time participants were tested and found clean, their names were entered into different prize pots. One pot gave an eight percent chance to win $20, and another gave a 1 in 100 chance to win $100, McDonell said.

“You have to keep people incentivized,” he said. “If you receive the same paycheck over and over, you eventually want a raise.”

The method can be effective, but one of the main problems is the cost, McDonell said. Few clinics besides the Veteran’s Administration offer the program because most can’t charge their patients for the prizes, he said.

If costs could be overcome, McDonell said contingency management could especially benefit patients in rural areas.

“In terms of rural communities,” he said, “I think it is highly relevant, because many rural communities don’t have access to addiction treatment.”

McDonell said he wants to find and implement the best, most cost-effective way to help those with addiction across the country.

“85% of people with alcohol addiction never receive treatment, even Alcoholic Anonymous,” McDonell said. “Many people with serious mental illness who are suffering from addiction struggle with disability, unemployment, homelessness, and social relationships. So the point of this study was to see if we could effectively deliver an addiction treatment in a mental health setting.”