Psychology Festival of Learning: Re-thinking Drug Addiction

Published: May 17, 2016 / One Comment

drug addiction

It was more than one hundred years ago, in 1914, when the United States initiated their aggressive and alienating  ‘War on Drugs’; and then steadily imposed it on the rest of the world.  Rooted in this still on-going war, is a compelling, simplistic narrative about the tremendous power that drugs have to endanger, derail and destroy human lives.  

“For so long, there’s been wide mainstream acceptance that drug use inevitably and relentlessly disrupts stable, happy lives causing great misery and presenting fearful dangers to the individual, to families and to society,” says Marcel Gil, who is a registered Counsellor at the Papillon Psychiatric Recovery Centre and a speaker at the SACAP Festival of Learning on Friday, 20 May. “This old narrative has been so powerful that today, it still dominates our media, medical, political and personal discourse about drugs and addiction; and shapes the treatment of addiction.”

Despite many decades of research and different evidence, as well as the vast experience gained in the recovery field, we still hold on fast to a single, old story – which is that if you, or one of your loved one’s uses drugs, this will unavoidably lead to that use ‘spiralling out of control’ into addiction, destroying the ability to live well, earn a living, care properly for oneself, others, even one’s children.  The addict is also regarded as being afflicted by the ‘chronic disease’ of addiction from which they can never be cured.  Their only path to recovery is their capacity to manage their disease through abstinence from moment to moment, and day to day.

“It’s not to say that everything needs to be thrown out of this ‘Official View’,” he asserts, “It’s more about recognising that it is a grossly simple story that is completely inadequate when it comes to addressing the vast complexity of drug, and also alcohol addiction.”

Here, Marcel busts six common addiction myths:

1. Addiction is fundamentally a problem of drug or alcohol consumption.

Addiction is not primarily or essentially a problem of alcohol and drugs. In fact, alcohol and drug addiction is only a corner of the vast, doleful tapestry of human addictions.

2. Addictive drugs have the power to transform the people who use them into drug addicts, overcoming their normal will power. Thus, it is drug use that has ‘flipped a switch’ in their brain.

This is not true.  The large majority of people who use ‘addictive drugs’ do not become addicted.  A fourteen-year old World Health Organization study on cocaine in 19 different countries showed that large numbers of people use cocaine and crack without addiction, medical harm, or anti-social behaviour.

3. A major portion of addiction is inherited.

At this time, the research provides no substantial evidence of a genetic predisposition to addiction. Many genes have been implicated at increasing vulnerability to various drugs, or predisposing individuals to personality traits conducive to addiction behaviour. However, research methodology, epigenetics and environmental influences all contribute to this theory being very uncertain.

4. Addicts suffer from a chronic, relapsing brain disease. Thus, there is no possibility of a complete and final cure for this disease.

Natural recovery is the most likely outcome of addiction. In addition, neuro-scientific explanations of addiction are not convincing; they are constantly changing, and are rarely used in diagnosing or treating addiction.

5. Addiction can be successfully managed through professional treatment and/or membership in self-help groups.

Despite countless interventions based upon the ‘Official View’, the prevalence of addiction has continued to rise throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. The Portugal Experiment involved a drastic move away from treatment as prescribed by the Official View resulting in a 50% reduction in intravenous drug use over a period of ten years. In the same time, the USA – maintaining treatment under the Official View – recorded a doubling of intravenous drug use.

6. Addiction is the problem of dysfunctional individuals within an otherwise well-functioning society.

Addiction cannot be understood simply as an affliction of certain individuals with genetic or acquired predispositions to addiction in otherwise well-functioning societies. The most powerful risk factors for addiction are social and cultural rather than genetic or individual.

The historical view on drugs and drug addiction have given us a narrow Moral/Legal/Medical model which has been used unsuccessfully for a very long time to try to curb drug use and treat addiction.  It is a convenient model in many respects, not least that gives the families of addicts the comfort of regarding the issue as a problem inherent in the addict; which means they don’t have to experience the discomfort of considering the social and psychological realities in their families.   It spares society in general, from accepting any responsibility in contributing to the rise of addictions.

However, if we truly want to reduce drug addiction and improve treatment outcomes, Marcus proposes that it’s long overdue to transform to the more wide-ranging bio-psychosocial model that takes factors from various aspects of life to determine what shapes addiction.  Biologically, the bio-psychosocial spiritual model considers possible genetic factors and neurobiological changes, as well as medical issues that could lead an individual to drug use. As for the psychological component of this model, things such as a history of trauma or abuse, emotional pain, mental illness, social and spiritual isolation are among the possible risk factors leading up to addiction.

INSPIRING TRANSFORMATION is the theme for the annual Psychology Festival of Learning, which will be hosted by SACAP (The South African College of Applied Psychology) at their Johannesburg campus on 19 and 20 May and at their Cape Town campus on 26 and 27 September.

The 2016 festival includes a short talk programme (evening) and a day programme.

Johannesburg Programme

Thursday, 19 May: Short Talk Programme (evening) R200-00
Friday, 20 May: Full-Day Programme R200-00
Student tickets for both events are R80-00

Cape Town Programme

Thursday, 26 May: Short Talk Programme (evening) R200-00
Friday, 27 May: Full-Day Programme R200-00
Student tickets for both events are R80-00

Tickets for the Psychology Festival of Learning as well as the programme with speakers details and topics are available on the website: www.psychologyfestival.co.za

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  1. David Roppo

    I believe we should re-think addiction, particularly in teens and young adults. It’s my experience that drug and alcohol addiction is generated in patterns of family relationship dynamics. And, it is driven by anxiety, emotional distress and/or depression. If we are to significantly reduce teen drug and alcohol abuse we must do more to educate parents on the influence they have and the role they must play.

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