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Is There Any One Answer to Drug Addiction?

Families, mental health specialists, former users, and social workers have tried to answer the question of what causes addiction for decades. And though we as a country have spent countless hours, research dollars, and legislative efforts in an attempt to derive an answer or a “cure-all” to drug addiction and abuse, we are no closer to the answer. Early drug addiction research in the 1970s led to the theory that drugs “hijack” the brain and was thought to be a breakthrough discovery. Substance abuse treatments and prevention models, such as the organization D.A.R.E., rolled out with philosophies and programs that incorporated this ideology. Yet despite the early enthusiasm and hopes for a breakthrough cure, the movement turned out to be a bluff. Drug consumption continued, prison populations swelled due to drug-related incarcerations, and D.A.R.E. was deemed counterproductive, with some populations reporting higher usage of drugs amongst those who graduated the D.A.R.E. program.  It seemed telling people about the dangers of drugs and to not do them was not effective when the question of why people use drugs was never addressed. Since then, the perspective toward what causes drug abuse has evolved and more focus is being placed on the social and environmental influences that put people at risk of abusing substances. But addressing the question of why people abuse substances has only convoluted how we address addiction, changing a one-time singular answer into a myriad of potential answers. With so many new conditions and contrasting perspectives to consider, we find ourselves asking a completely different question these days: Is there really any one “thing” that causes drug addiction?

Earlier methodology against substance abuse and addiction adopted the philosophy that drugs hijack the brain. As was covered more in-depth in our previous blog “How the Brain becomes Addicted to the Feel-Good Rush of Drugs,” substance abuse triggers an onslaught of dopamine that essentially causes the brain to become physically and psychologically addicted on a neurological level. Using substances would eventually cause a person to seek out drugs until their addiction potentially killed them, and that there was no way to temper this because of how effective drugs hijack the brain. The only way to prevent addiction, therefore, was to maintain complete abstinence and avoid the chemical “hooks” of drugs.

However, Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream, and the Rat Park experiment in the late ‘70s suggest that it is not simply the way drugs chemically compromise the brain that causes addiction, but the environment. In his article, Hari uses the Rat Park experiment to argue that environmental factors and the lack of social support are what causes people to fall into addiction, referencing how the rats that were isolated were more inclined to consume the drugs offered. Indeed, it would seem that there is much more to what causes addiction then simply the act of substance use. More and more, we are finding that those who have experienced immense trauma, such as childhood abuse, sexual abuse, disruptive family environments, social deprivation, poverty, and post-traumatic stress disorder, are more at risk of substance abuse. Drugs become a way of self-medicating against the psychological and environmental traumas. If addiction is all about the environment, then just as Hari suggests, the best way of addressing addiction is to provide the love and support the user is not receiving and change his/her environment.

However, does Hari’s argument oversimplify the answer? If it really is simply that a poor environment leads to addiction, then how do we account for those that fall into addiction who have had stable lives with much social support? Furthermore, how does this theory account for those that have experienced immensely traumatic environments, poverty and abuse, and yet have grown up to live sober lives? Peg O’Connor’s article suggests this very same point, and accuses Hari of creating a “false dichotomy,” that “Hari’s conclusion that good or bad environments cause addiction rests upon an assumption that addiction is all in the brain or addiction is all in the environment.” She then argues that “[addiction] is a highly complex set of phenomena that cannot be reduced to one cause, which means there is not one solution or treatment.”

So is there really any one answer to what causes addiction? The answer is no. There is no one factor that causes addiction, and subsequently no one cure-all solution. Further research into addiction and substance abuse treatment over the decades has merely made the answer to “What causes addiction, and how do we cure it?” all the more complex. However, as we have evolved a more multi-faceted approach to substance abuse and addiction, substance abuse treatment has evolved with it, becoming a much more personal, and personally-tailored experience for each individual struggling with addiction. There will never be any one way of approaching what causing addiction, but maybe this best reflects the fact that each person’s struggle with addiction is unique and involves differing circumstances. By having a more versatile perspective of drug addiction, we can have a more flexible substance abuse treatment model of which better meets the needs of the individual seeking sobriety. Substance abuse treatment in Portland, OR should adopt a multi-perspective approach to substance abuse in order to best overcome addiction.

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