Could Community Be The Cure For Addiction?

Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
Wrapping up his recent TED Talk, Johann Hari gets particularly candid with his audience: "It's hard loving an addict." But he goes on to argue that love could be what leads to recovery. Hari seeks to turn the mainstream view of drug addiction on its head, advocating for empathy and connection, rather than stigmatization and isolation.

Citing the landmark "rat park" study, which showed that social environments were less likely to foster addictive behavior in rats, he suggests a similar approach to preventing substance abuse could be successful among humans. It's just that there's about 100 years of misconceptions in the way. "Maybe we shouldn't even call it 'addiction.' Maybe we should call it 'bonding [with a substance],'" says Hari, echoing the sentiment of Professor Peter Cohen.

"Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond," he continues, "and when we're happy and healthy, we'll bond and connect with each other, but if you can't do that because you're traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief." The opposite of addiction, Hari claims, isn't sobriety, but connection.

While it's important to treat Hari's talk as mainly anecdotal, there has been research done, beyond rat park, that aligns with his ideas. An examination of therapeutic communities, a common treatment practice in Spain, showed that substance users who underwent treatment in one of these TCs decreased (or for 48% of them, completely eliminated) the presence of drugs in their lives. Additional reports of having improved personal lives and familial relations accompanied those findings.

Another study, published in the Medical Journal of Chile, found that social support can have an immensely positive impact on addicts maintaining a drug-free lifestyle — after six months out of treatment, 70% of participants in the study had remained clean.

Hari concludes with what he wants to say to the addicts he knows: "I love you whether you're using or you're not. I love you, whatever state you're in. If you need me, I'll come and sit with you because I love you and I don't want you to be alone or to feel alone." Nothing but good will come from seeking out that bond and it will show people the importance of "loving an addict."

You can watch Hari's talk in its entirety, below.

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