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Division of Social Work

Exploring the Relationship between Spirituality and Addiction

This research is critically important if we want to discover new ways to improve treatment outcomes for people with addictive disorders.
Dr. Donna Leigh Bliss

Donna Leigh Bliss

Theories abound about the cause of addictive disorders such as alcoholism and drug addiction.  A common perception is that they are primarily biological in nature, most likely with some sort of genetic predisposition.  Some believe that addiction is more a personality flaw or lack of willpower, while others point to the role of social and environmental influences. 

Dr. Donna Leigh Bliss has worked in the addiction field for many years before entering academia.  During this time she wondered why the 12-Step approach that is based on the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is spiritual in nature, was effective for so many people, in addressing what many people see as a disease that is primarily biological in nature.  "While I think the cause of addiction is a complex array of factors that are physical, social, and psychological in nature, it seemed to me that perhaps we were missing something by not taking a deeper look at the spiritual component as well," Bliss stated.  "Perhaps we can improve treatment outcomes if we better understand the role of spirituality as well as other factors."

These kinds of questions are what led Bliss to examine this relationship in her dissertation research at the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Social Work.  "The preliminary research I conducted did show the role that spirituality had in the recovery process. but I could not find any research that examined the impact that addiction had on spirituality.  It seemed to me that given addiction negatively impacts the physical, psychological, and social functioning of people, it would suggest that addiction should have a negative impact on spiritual functioning as well. The implications of this hypothesis is that if we address these negative impacts when someone is in treatment, perhaps we can help improve treatment outcomes."

The findings from the dissertation research of Bliss supported her hypothesis as the greater the severity of alcohol dependence, the greater the negative impact on spirituality.  According to Bliss, "these results confirmed my thinking about the importance of examining the relationship between spirituality and addiction and has led to my conducting subsequent research on aspects of this relationship including ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation differences. In each study, I found there were indeed important differences that have implications for treatment."

This promising line of research raises questions about where to go next.  According to Bliss, "I would like to develop a treatment approach that is explicitly spirituality-based in focus and compare its effectiveness regarding improving treatment retention, post discharge sobriety, and quality of life functioning to more standard treatment approaches.  Ultimately, I believe that the research we conduct needs to have a positive impact on real people with real problems."

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Division of Social Work

College of Health Sciences

University of Wyoming

Dept. 3632

1000 E. University Ave.

Laramie, WY 82071-2000

Phone: (307) 766-6112


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