UB research team receives grant that could change the approach to treating alcohol addiction

Release Date: June 30, 2020

“This research challenges that mentality, and can be part of a bigger paradigm shift about how we address recovery and support people in recovery. ”
Elizabeth Bowen, assistant professor of social work
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A multidisciplinary team of University at Buffalo researchers has received a nearly $184,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to develop a reliable measure of recovery capital, a potentially powerful instrument that could drastically change how clinicians and other health and human service providers treat people recovering from alcohol addiction.

Recovery capital is a broad-based, person-centered approach for treating addiction to alcohol and other drugs (AOD) that considers each person’s social, human, physical and cultural resources.

Robert Granfield, UB’s vice provost for faculty affairs and a sociology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, who is among the current study’s co-investigators, developed the theory of recovery capital about 20 years ago with William Cloud, a professor in the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. The theory derives from Granfield’s and Cloud’s research with people who recovered from addiction without formal treatment.

“I was already interested in recovery capital when I arrived at UB,” says Elizabeth Bowen, an assistant professor in the UB School of Social Work and the study’s principal investigator. “For me, it was a happy coincidence that one of the theory’s originators happened to be a faculty member here.”

Recovery capital includes, among other factors, specific levels of emotional support, education, coping skills, material resources like stable housing, as well as the context of a given cultural environment, consisting of norms, values and beliefs that can vary significantly across different groups in terms of recovery support.

“The treatment system for alcohol recovery has traditionally focused on a motivational model,” says Bowen. “People have been told that recovery is a matter of desire, and that failure and relapse result from not being sufficiently motivated toward achieving their goal.

“Delivered repeatedly, that message becomes internalized and can result in shame and a sense of failure about struggling so much with their addiction.”

What stands out for Bowen, who worked as a practicing social worker for several years before pursuing a career in research and teaching, is how that treatment approach ignores that people in recovery may lack critical elements required to support their recovery attempt.

Nevertheless, the message received from the treatment system doesn’t recognize other possible hindrances or identify other likely assets to recovery.

“I feel essentially that’s what our treatment system has been doing to a lot of people for decades,” she says. “This research challenges that mentality, and can be part of a bigger paradigm shift about how we address recovery and support people in recovery.”

Bowen says reliably measuring recovery capital is the first step to advancing the science of better understanding how different sources of capital facilitate recovery.

Existing research suggests the important role recovery capital plays in alcohol and other drug treatment and recovery outcomes, but the field lacks a psychometrically sound measure. Current measures of recovery capital suffer from a number of inadequacies, according to Bowen.

Some haven’t been well-tested with low-income populations, while others have statistical problems which might contribute toward not actually measuring what they’re intended to gauge.

“We want a sample that is socioeconomically, racially and ethnically diverse,” says Bowen. “The new measure we’re building will be developed and tested on an inclusive sample to make sure it’s reliable and valid for large populations of people in recovery.”

UB colleagues Thomas Nochajski, a research professor in the School of Social Work, and Gregory E. Wilding, a professor and chair in the Department of Biostatistics in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, join Granfield as the study’s co-investigators. Bowen says the team’s expertise from multiple fields provides them with a novel perspective that affords a view beyond the traditional biomedical lens.

She says the group will build the new measure from the ground up, beginning with interviews and focus groups to improve the definitions of recovery capital and learn what’s important to people in the process of recovery. Testing follows development to determine the reliability, validity and feasibility of the measure.

“My hope is that our measure can be used in future research to better understand recovery capital and its relationship to recovery outcomes, but I also hope it can be used clinically as a launching point to work with clients in the areas they need to develop.”

“I’m excited and ready to begin work on developing a new tool for effective change when it comes to addiction recovery,” she says.

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