Co-investigators Matthew T. Lee, a professor the University of Akron and vice president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, and Byron R. Johnson, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion and distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University explored changes in daily spiritual experiences of 195 substance-dependent adolescents.
The teens, ages 14-18, were court-referred for treatment at New Directions, the largest adolescent residential treatment facility in northeast Ohio.
New Directions provides a range of evidence-based therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, group therapies, relapse prevention and aftercare. New Directions uses the 12-step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which does not require participants to hold any particular religious beliefs, the researchers said.
The researchers measured "daily spiritual experiences" independently of "religious beliefs and behaviors." Daily spiritual experiences are not bound to any particular religious tradition and include reported feelings of a divine presence, inner peace or harmony and selflessness and benevolence toward others.
The researchers found on the "religious beliefs and behaviors" scale, adolescents reported a range of belief orientations at the beginning of treatment including atheist, agnostic, unsure, non-denominational spiritual or denominational religious. The researchers also found that most of the adolescents, regardless of their religious background or denomination, reported having more daily spiritual experiences by the end of the two month treatment period.
Participants -- 92 percent were marijuana dependent and 60 percent alcohol dependent -- were interviewed within the first 10 days of treatment and two months later at treatment discharge.
"The key message is that changes in spiritual experiences are associated with better outcomes, including lower toxicology, reduced self-centeredness and higher levels of helping others," Lee said in a statement.
"The study supports the AA theory of addiction -- which views self-centeredness as a root cause -- and suggests that this approach would be helpful in designing treatment options for adolescents."
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, personality is not relatively fixed by late adolescence, and Axis II disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder can improve, Lee said.
"Just because an adolescent is not spiritual prior to participating in the treatment project, does not mean that they are incapable of becoming spiritual," Lee said. "Our results demonstrate that if they do become spiritual, they will tend to have much better outcomes."