Individuals can get help for alcohol use and PTSD at the same time: A movement toward integrated treatment approaches

The following article was recently published on the research page of the Recovery Research Institute website. The study indicates that individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at increased risk of having co-occurring alcohol use disorder. However, it is not known whether the first-line treatment for PTSD (i.e., prolonged exposure therapy) is also effective in reducing problematic drinking. This study replicated prior findings suggesting prolonged exposure therapy is superior in treating PTSD symptoms, but was not more effective in reducing heavy drinking days than an intervention intended primarily to increase coping skills. However, findings from this study do challenge the notion that alcohol use disorder may be a barrier to receiving gold-standard treatment for PTSD. 

WHAT PROBLEM DOES THIS STUDY ADDRESS?

The alcohol industry has long faced a difficult public relations dilemma. Though many individuals enjoy using alcohol with little or no consequence, for many others, alcohol causes significant emotional, physical, and interpersonal harm. At a population level, alcohol use has a prodigious, adverse social and economic impact. In order to mitigate the perception that the alcohol industry is profiting from suffering, and at times because of government pressure, in many countries major alcohol producers have voluntarily funded public awareness campaigns about the harms of excessive alcohol use. Critics, however, have argued that such voluntary measures are doomed to fail because they involve companies engaging in activities and policies aimed at reducing the harmful behaviors on which their profitability depends. In essence, these companies have a major conflict of interest. 

The alcohol industries in England and the United States have often played down the extent to which profits are driven by excessive use of their products, in spite of evidence from several countries that alcohol consumption is concentrated within a minority of heavier drinkers. The present study explored whether such findings are also true for England. Specifically, the authors asked: 1) What proportion of alcohol sales revenue is accounted for by people drinking more than government recommended guidelines for low-risk drinking (in the UK no more than 14 standard drinks per week, where a standard drink is equal to 7.9g of pure alcohol. This is considerably less than in the U.S. where a standard drink is equal to14g of pure alcohol – almost twice as much). 2) How does financial dependence on heavy drinkers vary between different sectors of the alcohol industry? 3) How would alcohol sales revenue be affected if everyone’s consumption fell to within guideline levels? 

This research has implications not just for public health policy, but for the millions of these heavy drinkers with alcohol use disorder in England, and countries like the United States.

HOW WAS THIS STUDY CONDUCTED?

This paper uses data from the UK Office for National Statistics’ Living Costs and Food Survey and the National Health Service’s Digital Health Survey for England. The Living Costs and Food Survey is distributed to households on a continuous basis throughout the year and asks each individual aged 16 years and over to keep a detailed diary of their daily expenditure over a 2-week period. For alcohol, the survey provides transaction-level data on beverage type (e.g., beer, cider, wine, spirits), price paid, and volume of product purchased. The survey also asks where the alcohol was purchased; either in a hotel, restaurant, or bar (known in the UK as on-trade sales), or from an alcohol retailer like a liquor store (referred to in the UK as off-trade sales). The authors pooled data from the 2013 and 2014 iterations of the survey, comprising a total of 9,975 households. 

The Health Survey for England is a large, nationally-representative survey of 16,872 individuals (2013 and 2014 pooled) which records self-reported ‘typical’ consumption by beverage type. Coverage of total alcohol purchases relative to estimates from more robust national accounts and sales data is approximately 60% (compared to 40% for the Living Costs and Food Survey), suggesting people markedly under-report their alcohol use. 

Drinking groups were defined according to UK government guidelines. ‘Moderate’ drinking is consumption below or equal to 14 standard drinks per week for both sexes, with a standard drink in the UK equaling 7.9g or 10ml of pure alcohol. ‘Heavy’ drinking refers to consumption above this level. Within the ‘heavy drinking’ category, the authors further distinguished ‘hazardous’ (15–35 units for women, 15–50 for men) from ‘harmful’ (36+ for women, 51+ for men) drinking, based on government guidelines.

WHAT DID THIS STUDY FIND?

The authors found that on the whole, the bulk of alcohol sales in England in 2013/14 were to individuals drinking excessively. An estimated 77% of alcohol was sold to drinkers consuming above guideline levels: 30% to harmful drinkers and 48% to hazardous drinkers. Further, alcohol consumed in excess of the guideline levels (i.e., those drinking 14 or more standard UK drinks per week) accounted for 44% of all sales.

Moderate drinkers (i.e., those drinking 14 or fewer UK standard drinks per week), who represented an estimated 59% of the population, were estimated to consume only 23% of all alcohol and accounted for only 32% of all revenue (Figure 1). The 21% of the population who were hazardous drinkers consumed an estimated 48% of all alcohol and accounted for an estimated 45% of all revenue. A relatively small group of harmful drinkers, comprising 4% of the total population, consumed almost a third (30%) of all alcohol sold in England, and accounted for nearly a quarter (23%) of all alcohol sales revenue.

Figure 1. Source: Bhattacharya et al., 2018.

Figure 1. Volume and value of alcohol sales by consumption level in England, 2013/14. The first column represents the makeup of the entire English population by drinking behaviors. The second column shows what percent of alcohol consumed in England was accounted for by each category of drinker. The third column shows the percentage of alcohol revenue accounted for by each category of drinker. As illustrated in this figure, in spite of making up only 25% of the population, hazardous and harmful drinkers accounted for 78% of alcohol consumption and 68% of alcohol revenue. 

In terms of differences between on-trade (i.e., in a hotel, restaurant or bar) and off-trade (alcohol retailors), 81% of off-trade revenue was estimated to come from those drinking above guideline levels (Figure 2). The corresponding amount was substantially lower (60%) for on-trade sales, although heavy drinkers also still accounted for the majority of sales revenue, highlighting the fact that hazardous and harmful drinkers accounted for the majority of both retail and bar/restaurant sales.

Figure 2. Source: Bhattacharya et al., 2018.

Figure 2. Proportion of revenue from harmful, hazardous and moderate drinkers by beverage types and retailer in England in 2013/14. On-trade refers to hotel, restaurant, or bar sales; off-trade refers to alcohol retailors. 77% of beer expenditure was estimated to come from drinkers consuming above guideline levels, compared to 70% for cider, 66% for wine and 50% for spirits. Hazardous and harmful drinkers accounted for the majority of on-trade and off-trade alcohol sales. 

The authors also report that should alcohol consumption be reduced to low-risk levels suggested by the UK government (i.e., 14 or less standard drinks per person, per week), the alcohol industry would stand to lose 38% of their current revenue (Figure 3). In absolute terms, this implies that the industry’s market value would fall by £13 billion (approximately US$17 billion).

Figure 3. Source: Bhattacharya et al., 2018.

Figure 3. Predicted percentage decline in alcohol revenue in England if alcohol consumption were to fall to government guideline levels for low-risk drinking (i.e., 14 or less standard drinks per person per week). Percentage declines in revenue are broken down by point of sale (on-trade versus off-trade), and alcohol category (beer, wine, etc.), as well as point of sale type crossed with alcohol category (in box, bottom right of figure). Altogether, the alcohol industry in England would stand to lose 38% of its revenue if everyone drank in accordance with government guideline levels for low-risk drinking.

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE STUDY FINDINGS?

Findings indicate the alcohol industry in England derives a large portion of its profit from excessive and/or problem drinkers. Given the consistency of this finding with similar research in Australia and Brazil, it seems likely that such a study conducted in the United States would find similar results. These findings raise serious questions about the conflicts of interest arising when an industry reliant on hazardous and harmful drinking is allowed to self-regulate and manages its public image with largely ineffective ‘safe drinking’ mantras (e.g., “Drink responsibly”). These findings also reinforce the need for strong alcohol sales policy, which has been shown to have real impact on problem drinking. Moreover, in so far as they suggest that a financially successful alcohol industry of its current size and form depends upon harmful drinking, the UK government’s economic support for alcohol producers, for example through tax cuts and trade negotiations, appear more problematic. These findings may also have relevance for ongoing debates about whether to restrict alcohol sales to state monopolies or open them up to commercial enterprises.

LIMITATIONS

  1. The authors’ analysis is taken from self-reported survey data, which tends to underestimate alcohol consumption. Their approach assumes implicitly that all sections of the population under-report their drinking in the same proportion. If anything, this probably underestimates the alcohol industry’s full reliance upon the heaviest drinkers, who are less likely to be represented in surveys.
  2. The analyses do not distinguish between specific companies. The degree to which any individual company benefits from sales to heavy drinkers is therefore unclear.

BOTTOM LINE

  • For individuals and families seeking recoveryHarmful and hazardous drinkers drive the bulk of English alcohol sales; a finding observed in other countries and presumed to be the same in other Western countries like the Unites States.
  • For treatment professionals and treatment systemsHarmful and hazardous drinkers drive the bulk of alcohol sales in England, and presumably other Western countries as well. Allowing the alcohol industry to design and self-monitor its own public health messaging regarding harmful/hazardous drinking represents a major conflict of interest. An industry that is financially reliant on harmful/hazardous drinking is unlikely to implement measures sufficient to curb problematic alcohol use.
  • For scientists: Harmful and hazardous drinkers drive the bulk of alcohol sales in England. The questions addressed by this research need to also be asked in the United States. Further, more research on the extent to which the alcohol industry has, in the past, mitigated volume declines by raising prices and selling more premium products would provide an indication of how sustainable such a strategy is likely to be in the long term. A further possible extension would be to explore the tax revenue generated by the government from excise duty on harmful drinkers, and the extent to which that tax revenue helps address some of the consequences of alcohol use disorder (e.g., funding publicly available treatment and recovery support services).
  • For policy makersAlcohol use and alcohol use disorder cost Western economies hundreds of billions of dollars annually and cause tremendous personal and societal harm. The alcohol industry profits directly from this problem. The alcohol industry’s conflicts of interest highlighted in this paper should be considered when creating and enforcing alcohol policy.

WHAT PROBLEM DOES THIS STUDY ADDRESS?

Individuals with PTSD are more likely to have an alcohol use disorder than individuals in the general population. One representative survey of adults in the United States found individuals with PTSD were 1.2 times as likely to have an alcohol use disorder in their lifetime than those without PTSDPTSD is also associated with a more problematic course of alcohol useincluding greater difficulty quitting, briefer abstinence periods, and more associated medical, legal, and psychological consequences. These disparities in alcohol use outcomes in individuals with PTSD underscore the need to identify treatments that are effective in treating both symptoms of PTSD as well as problematic alcohol use. To address this need, Norman and colleagues studied the immediate, 3-month, and 6-month outcomes among 119 adult veterans with co-occurring PTSD and alcohol use disorder who received one of two competing treatment approaches. The table below outlines key components of each treatment approach. The first treatment, called Concurrent Treatment for PTSD and Substance Use Disorder Using Prolonged Exposure, or “COPE,” was integrated with prolonged exposure therapy that involves 1) helping individuals gradually approach trauma-related memories, feelings, and situations, and 2) relapse prevention for alcohol use disorder using cognitive and behavioral therapeutic techniques. The second tested treatment, called Seeking Safety (an empirically-supported treatment for co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorder), was a present-focused coping intervention that aimed to teach individuals skills to cope with both symptoms of PTSD and alcohol use disorder. The ultimate goal of this research study was to determine which treatment modality was most effective in supporting the recovery of individuals living with both PTSD and alcohol use disorder. 

Figure 1. Chart comparing the features of both the COPE and Seeking Safety treatment approaches, including general timeframe of treatment, and specific therapy techniques.

HOW WAS THIS STUDY CONDUCTED?

Study authors examined 119 adult veterans (90% male, average age of 41 years, 66% White) with current symptoms of PTSD who were receiving care at the San Diego Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). While individuals were encouraged to avoid other treatment for their PTSD, they were able to receive standard mental health treatment at the VA while participating in this study. For example, 65% were taking psychotropic medication during the study. Participants also needed to have current alcohol use disorder, at least 20 days of heavy alcohol use (see below for heavy drinking definition) in the past three months, and a stated desire to quit or cut back on alcohol use. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either 12-16 90-minute sessions of COPE (i.e., integrated prolonged exposure therapy) or Seeking Safety (i.e., coping skills–focused therapy). Sessions were administered preferably once to twice per week on consecutive weeks, but could span across a 6-month period of time. 

Participants completed assessments of PTSD symptoms and problematic drinking behavior after treatment and at 3- and 6-months posttreatment, and these assessments were administered by study staff who were not aware of (i.e., “blinded” to) the treatment received.The Clinician Administered PTSD Scale for DSM-5 (CAPS-5) was the primary measure used to quantify PTSD symptoms and diagnosis, with scores >=12 suggestive of a PTSD diagnosis (range: 0-80). Frequency and quantity of alcohol use were ascertained via a calendar-based interview (i.e., Timeline Follow-Back), which was used to deduce A) the percent of heavy drinking days defined as the number of days in which 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women were consumed since the last assessment, and B) percent days abstinent for alcohol. A breathalyzer was administered to any participant who appeared intoxicated. 

WHAT DID THIS STUDY FIND?

PTSD symptoms declined more in veterans who received integrated prolonged exposure therapy compared to the present-focused coping intervention.

PTSD symptoms improved over time regardless of therapy assignment; however, the COPE group improved more than did the Seeking Safety group. Immediately after treatment, over 20% of individuals went from having a PTSD diagnosis to no longer meeting criteria for the condition (“remission”), compared to only 7% in the present-focused coping intervention. The advantage for the COPE group became slightly weakened over time but was nevertheless maintained; the greater PTSD symptom gains for the COPE group were still present 6 months after completing treatment.

Figure 2.

Drinking outcomes improved similarly across treatment groups.

All participants showed reductions in the percent of heavy drinking days over time, though the extent of decrease was similar in those who received integrated prolonged exposure and the present-focused coping intervention. Findings were similar – both groups displayed similarly improved drinking – when the outcome was percent days abstinent as well.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE STUDY FINDINGS?

This study is responsive to the urgent need to identify treatments that are effective in mitigating both symptoms of PTSD and alcohol use disorder, the co-occurrence of which is both highly common and linked with greater negative outcomes compared to either disorder alone. Findings from this study build upon a robust literature suggesting that prolonged exposure therapy is the gold standard for mitigating PTSD symptoms. Importantly, this study demonstrates that prolonged exposure therapy is effective even among individuals with an active alcohol use disorder. This study, plus a growing body of literature, challenges a commonly held belief that individuals with alcohol use disorder cannot tolerate exposure-based approaches, addressing the notion of alcohol use disorder as a potential barrier to receiving widely–supported, evidence–based therapy for PTSD.

Contrary to the authors’ hypotheses, however, prolonged exposure therapy was no more effective in reducing problematic alcohol use than the present-focused coping intervention. The fact that this PTSD reduction benefit did not translate into lower problematic alcohol use suggests that, whereas some PTSD patients may have initially drunk (and still drink) alcohol to help “medicate” the distress caused by PTSD, for many others, the alcohol use may persist fairly independently of PTSD. Although group differences were not found with regard to drinking use, it is notable that both groups showed significant reductions in drinking over time, suggesting that simultaneous treatment for alcohol use disorder can be integrated into the framework of PTSD treatment without interfering with the treatment of PTSD itself. Future studies are needed to determine which PTSD treatment modalities may have the most beneficial impact on drinking behaviors. Some findings from other groups provide promising preliminary support for approaches that involve teaching individuals to challenge and modify maladaptive beliefs (cognitive processing therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy) and guided eye movements with the goal of diminishing negative feelings associated with traumatic events (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy).LIMITATIONS

BOTTOM LINE

  • For individuals and families seeking recoveryThis study demonstrated that the simultaneous attention to both PTSD symptoms and alcohol use disorder is possible, and attention to both disorders in an integrated treatment approach is linked with improved functioning. Therefore, patients with both conditions should feel empowered to have both PTSD symptoms and problematic drinking behavior as treatment targets that can be addressed in tandem rather than in parallel. This is comparable to other studies that find integrated approaches to be successful in cases of co-occurring substance use and other neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and ADHD
  • For treatment professionals and treatment systemsPatients with PTSD and alcohol use disorder benefitted from integrated treatment approaches. Findings suggest that individuals with comorbid PTSD and alcohol use disorder should not be excluded from receiving front-line PTSD treatment on account of their untreated alcohol use. Rather, alcohol use should be identified as a core treatment target and addressed in tandem with PTSD. Further work is needed, though, to determine the most effective treatment modality for addressing problematic alcohol use in the context of PTSD.  
  • For scientists: Findings point to the efficacy of prolonged exposure therapy, even in the presence of co-occurring alcohol use, in mitigating symptoms of PTSD. While findings suggest a reduction in heavy drinking days, this effect was not specific to the therapeutic approach of prolonged exposure therapy. This finding does not align with “self-medication” as a maintaining condition for alcohol use disorder, at least for some. While more work is needed to determine the most effective approach for reducing alcohol use among PTSD patients, this study represents an important first step in decreasing barriers to access to empirically-validated and integrated treatments. Additionally, while prolonged exposure therapy is commonly viewed as a gold standard approach for trauma treatment, retention particularly in real-world settings is often low. Co-occurring substance use has been found to be one patient factor robustly associated with dropout. Therefore, future studies aimed at enhancing engagement and retention, especially among patients with co-occurring disorders, is critical for the widespread dissemination of this approach. 
  • For policy makersFindings lend preliminary support for the efficacy of integrated treatment approaches, which runs contrary to the outdated, yet still pervasively present notion, that substance use disorders need to be fully remitted prior to the treatment of co-occurring other mental health concerns (e.g., PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders). Integrated treatment approaches that allow for substance use disorders and other mental health disorders to be addressed simultaneously will undoubtedly decrease barriers to treatment access for the large proportion of patients seeking recovery from multiple conditions. Therefore, it is imperative that clinician trainees and all patient-facing staff in mental health facilities receive proper education and training in issues related to substance use disorders. Such training may involve early identification of problematic substance use and management of acute signs of overdose. Additionally, as demonstrated in this study, it remains unknown which integrated treatments are optimally effective in treating substance use disorders in the context of PTSD and other co-occurring mental health conditions. Therefore, the field would benefit from continued funding to support research on novel treatment development and evaluation.  

CITATIONS

Norman, S. B., Trim, R., Haller, M., Davis, B. C., Myers, U. S., . . . Mayes, T. (2019). Efficacy of integrated exposure therapy vs integrated coping skills therapy for comorbid posttraumatic stress disorder and alcohol use disorder: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry, (Epub ahead of print). doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.0638 

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