Rat Park – The Oversimplification of Addiction

There’s been two videos making the rounds about addiction that have me concerned. I feel it important to remind people the importance of healthy skepticism in a world of quick fixes and false hopes. I don’t know about you, but times of hopelessness and helplessness have been run rampant in my early stages of sobriety/recovery.

I realize that I may sound too harsh or critical of these ideas. I question myself all the time when I write out these thought pieces. Where does it come from? Concern for anyone else in a similar boat. For that, I know it may feel uncomfortable, and it must be said.

I hope not, but you know, questioning comfort is change.

It all starts from the popularization of an old psychology article. Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia thought that drugs themselves (particularly opioids) don’t cause addiction, it’s actually the attributes of living conditions.

This is the bases for the two videos in question: Kurzgesagt YouTube video that explains the theory, and Johann Hari’s TED talk.

Addiction is a complex beast that has many facets, and it’s extremely dangerous to accept any attempt at over-simplification

I will start by saying I do agree that healthy support is a determining factor with recovery (particularly behavioral change), and the main message of being more supportive, empathetic, and having patience with those dealing with addiction is helpful. The other message of putting money into programs that encourage healthy behavioral change instead of penalization needs to be screamed from the rooftops.

Ready for the but? The problem I have is how the message is presented, and what message you initially take away. Other than a spare few, the only theme resonating with the masses is the following: loneliness and isolation are the sole reasons for addiction.

Let’s start with the academic side. The videos fail to mention the study they base their claims is heavily flawed, and multiple sources have made claims refuting the now over-generalized study. It’s be reported that Alexander had faulty equipment, resulting in lost data [1]. Results could not be replicated [2], and one replica study (that also failed to obtain Alexander’s results) took one things further mentioning genetics as a possibility certain rats become addicted to morphine, not solely due to their surroundings [3]. Many sources also claim it was rejected by two major journals before being published, and lost its funding shortly after [4].

Two other biggies: it only focuses on opioids, and it’s done on rats. We can do all the medical studies and trials we want on rats, but you don’t know until you study humans. The counter argument to that is Rat Park was done during the Vietnamese war, thus you can correlate results in humans due to the solders commonly having free access to heroin spending long periods in isolation. They then would come home to healthy support systems, and miraculously be fine. The other argument is that many in the hospital given morphine never become addicted.

Correlation does not mean causation. Ice cream consumption increases odds of drowning in the summer. Well, no, both of those behaviors increase because it’s hot. If it only happens a few times, it’s coincidence.

I don’t understand how they get away with the hospital argument. For starters, unless in hospice care, morphine is discontinued as quickly as possible (usually within a week) and replaced with things such as Tylenol 3. Claiming you need at least 21 days for the hooks of diamorphine to get you, well, it’s not viable to compare a two-week hospital stay. My other issue is that you may wish to speak to 4 million Americans who abused a prescription painkiller and close to 2 million who met the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder involving these medications [5]. As for veterans, the lack of sources bother me. Did those follow-ups include percentages of false-reporting and the use of other more socially accepted substances such as alcohol? Did they follow these people for a lengthy amount of time? Did the soldiers report any mental illnesses?

What about other drugs?

Regarding the TED Talk: I love how someone who’s never been through crippling withdrawal symptoms of any kind can quote one study saying someone can get out of bed in the morning because they have something [other than the drug] based on one study. It does not factor functioning addicts, or drug dependent persons.

If you have a crisis in your life, it won’t be your Twitter followers who come and sit with you. ~  Johann Hari

I can pull from memory three times complete strangers who have digitally walked me out of a dissociative panic state via Twitter on my mobile while in public. To those people, I am so grateful for you. Please don’t lose that kindness.

When I have reached out to people I thought I could rely on who I mostly interact with publicly, they fell through like water in a sieve. That’s when I learned about toxic relationships, how to end them, and to keep healthy boundaries. Maybe we’ve created more space in our homes because we’re working on ending a trigger that leads to our behavior? We’re currently stuck, and have to make due. Not everyone can just up and re-route a life. I think of myself, but I think of others who have families and young children. They chose to create that healthy distance for the sake of the safety and health of the child. That’s true selflessness.

Dismissing the avenue of a deep (enough) social connection via electronic means is both foolish, and dangerous. I’ve found the most kindness in strangers: the bias they have towards you and your situation is minimal. If used properly, it’s a vital tool of support that now is available with an internet connection. In most cases it’s the launching pad of the creation of new healthy relationships in the real world.

So please dear reader, remember when hope dwindles, falsehoods can entice use worse that the addiction we are combating. Take away only the positive sensations in needed in an emergency, but don’t act on impulse thinking this is your full solution.

Oversimplifying addiction is a bad idea.

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