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Rewards During Recovery

We are always interested in hearing about new and unique approaches to recovery. And over in Canada, a noted treatment center is testing out a prize reward system for those who can successfully conquer their addictions. Obviously a tactic like this can sound controversial, but according to The New York Times it is proving to be quite successful.


St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver has made the most headlines for this approach (which is now being implemented in several facilities across the country). Using an anonymous case study named Mr. Oliver, the treatment center set up an eight-week prize program that gave out money chips and gift cards after certain sobriety milestones were achieved.


Mr. Oliver had been dealing with a severe alcohol and cocaine dependency, winding up at the clinic as a last resort. As he progressed through the program, weekly urine tests were administered to ensure all drugs were removed from his system. Each time he passed, Mr. Oliver was able to pull chips from a hat which were equated to certain monetary rewards.


As the article explains, the theory goes back generations and is rooted in behavioral economy theory. Basically, the idea that people will change their habits if they are given an incentive to do so. Prior to the recovery implementation, this concept had been successfully used to ween Canadians off of cigarettes. Prior research had shown that it had even improved the birth weight of babies, as more pregnant women were able to quit smoking.


Counselor Harkamal Sangha works within the program and has seen its success firsthand. As he explained to The Times, this idea initially started with vouchers for clean urine tests and eventually evolved into prize drawings. He believes the new structure also takes away some of the shame people feel when they are subjected to submitting specimens.


“Drugs provide immediate reinforcement with all of the negative consequences delayed,” he explained. “The benefits that come with recovery take time, and the immediate effects of abstinence are unpleasant. But incentive programs, with their quick rewards, tip that balance.”


Yes, approaches like this have their fair share of critics (highlighting that it may continue to pleasure seeking urges of an addict). But the bottom line is, the rewards recovery program does appear to be working. So far, St. Paul’s has seen dozens of former patients get jobs, find happiness and, most importantly, remain clean.