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Maia  Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz

Award-Winning Neuroscience Author, Journalist & Mental Health Advocate


Maia Szalavitz is an award-winning author and journalist who covers addiction and neuroscience. Her latest book, the New York Times bestseller, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction uses her own story of recovery from heroin and cocaine addiction to explore how reframing addiction as a learning disorder can transform prevention, treatment and policy. It was published by St. Martin’s Books in April 2016, with paperback forthcoming in 2017. Read More >

Her work speaks to people with addiction, their family members, policy makers, concerned community members, politicians, treatment providers, physicians, social service agencies affected by addiction, university communities, criminal justice officials, and others who want to improve the way we prevent, treat and manage drug problems.

She spoke this year at Harvard Medical School’s widely respected annual conference on Treating the Addictions, keynoted the 2016 meeting of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, appeared on panels and as a speaker at multiple Drug Policy Alliance conferences and at the Harm Reduction Coalition conference. This year alone, she’s spoken to classes at Yale, Columbia, and New York University and she will speak at M.I.T. and U.C.L.A in coming semesters. She moderated a panel on Ithaca’s forthcoming drug policy changes (including a safe injection facility), spoke to town leaders and concerned citizens in Blackburg, Virginia and to tech leaders in Boston at a “hackathon” to fight the opioid crisis sponsored by GE, Massachusetts General Hospital and the City of Boston.

She’s the author or co-author of six previous books, including the bestselling The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (Basic, 2007), which is widely used in psychology and social work classes as an introduction to child trauma issues; and Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential— and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), both with leading child psychiatrist and trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD.

Her book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006) is the first history of widespread systemic abuse in “tough love” programs and rehabs and helped spur Congressional hearings, Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigations and proposed legislation to regulate these groups. She also co-wrote the first evidence-based consumer guide to addiction treatment, Recovery Options: The Complete Guide, with Joe Volpicelli, MD, PhD. (Wiley, 2000).

Currently, she writes a twice-monthly column for VICE on drugs and addiction. From 2010 to 2013, she wrote daily for TIME.com and she continues to freelance there and for other publications including the New York TimesScientific American MindNatureNew York Magazine online, Pacific StandardMatterNautilus, and The Verge.

Szalavitz has won major awards from organizations like the American Psychological Association, the Drug Policy Alliance and the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology in recognition of her work in these areas. A book that she co-wrote as a ghost received the Pen / E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing. Read Less ^

Speaker Videos

America's Anti-Drug Laws Aren't Scientific

Why Addiction is A Learning Disorder & Why It Matters

Speech Topics

Why Addiction is a Learning Disorder & Why It Matters

In this dynamic presentation, Szalavitz explores why understanding addiction as a learning disorder can advance drug policy and end stale arguments about whether compulsive drug use is a crime or a disease. By seeing addiction from a new perspective, we can increase compassion and reduce drug and drug policy related harm. Read More >


  • Addiction is defined by experts as compulsive behavior that continues despite negative consequences. Given this, using negative consequences to try to control it makes no sense.
  • Since addiction persists despite consequences, it’s fundamentally a problem with learning from punishment in this context. Presentation explores what this means for policy across criminal justice system, prevention and treatment system.
  • Our brains have a system to make us persist despite consequences in order to allow us to successfully love and parent. When this gets misdirected towards a drug, it is problematic but the characteristic can be an asset when appropriately directed.

Can also include personal story of addiction and recovery if desired. Read Less ^

Myths About Addiction That Stymy Better Policy & Practices

This presentation explores common myths about addiction and shows why better understanding the condition can radically improve prevention, treatment and policy. Myths vary from misperceptions about the nature of addiction itself to the idea that there is only one way to recover and the notion that people must not be “enabled,” and need to “hit bottom” and experience “tough love” before they can improve. Can also include my personal experience with addiction and how these myths interfered with my own recovery.

How Harm Reduction Saved My Life

Through a warm, moving, emotional narrative, Szalavitz shows how being taught to clean her needles with bleach not only protected her from HIV, but helped her move towards recovery because of her outrage at the failure of society to care for people with addiction. This presentation explains why harm reduction— far from “enabling” or extending addiction— is actually the best way to spur health and recovery.