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First-Time DWI Offenders Often Have Multiple Problems

Besides alcohol use, they often abuse drugs, have psychiatric ills, study finds

THURSDAY, March 29, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Most drivers arrested for the first time for driving while intoxicated are also likely to have drug abuse problems or psychiatric disorders, a new study finds.

That suggests that intervention programs for first-time DWI offenders should focus on more than just stopping their alcohol abuse, said lead researcher Dr. Stephanie O'Malley, professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Another expert agreed.

"If you just deal with the alcohol and not the other conditions, this study shows that relapse is quick," said David Rosenbloom, a professor of public health at the Boston University School of Public Health and director of Join Together, an organization that supports community-based efforts for alcohol and drug prevention and treatment programs.

Rosenbloom was not involved in the study, which is published in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

In the study, O'Malley's team looked at 290 first-time DWI offenders treated at group counseling services between October 1992 and September 1994 in the state of Connecticut.

They found that 42 percent had a lifetime history of drug abuse or dependence, usually marijuana. And 30 percent had a lifetime history of anxiety or mood disorders, usually social phobia or depression.

"There was some overlap," O'Malley added. Many of the offenders had both mood or anxiety problems and drug dependence problems.

Other studies also have found that first-time DWI offenders are likely to have drug and psychiatric problems, O'Malley noted. "What's different about our study is that we have complete, formal diagnoses [of drug use and other psychiatric problems] rather than just [self-reported] symptoms." Her team also evaluated whether having drug or psychiatric problems affected treatment outcomes once the offenders were sent to group counseling programs after their arrests.

Driving while intoxicated is a serious problem in the United States. According to O'Malley, Department of Transportation statistics show that more than 40 percent of all fatal car accidents are alcohol-related.

Her team followed the study participants for one year after they finished the 10-week group counseling program.

"Those with mood and anxiety disorders continue to have more enduring alcohol-related problems, compared to those without mood and anxiety disorders," O'Malley said. Those with drug dependence decreased their drinking, but the decreases weren't sustained at the one-year follow-up mark.

For both groups -- those with mood or anxiety disorders or those with drug dependence -- O'Malley found a greater readiness to change their use of alcohol compared to the DWI offenders who didn't have the additional problems.

That's the good news in the study, the researcher said. However, she believes that current intervention programs often fall short in helping people sort through their problems. These efforts need to be improved to ensure permanent results.

The study "demonstrates the importance of thorough intervention at the first arrest for DWI,'' said Rosenbloom. "The first time someone is arrested is unlikely to be the first time they drove while intoxicated. People arrested for drunk driving have serious problems. The results of this study again demonstrate you really have to treat alcohol, drug and psychiatric conditions together."

More information

To learn more about getting help for an alcohol or drug problem, visit Join Together .

SOURCES: Stephanie O'Malley, M.D., professor, psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; David Rosenbloom, Ph.D., professor, public health, Boston University School of Public Health, Boston; April 2007, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research
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