Examining the Roots of Addiction

By Ellen Edelman

As Lent comes closer and social justice events are planned to heighten people’s awareness of these issues, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk’s column (“At the Heart of the Tragedy of Addiction,” Jan. 16) strikes a relevant note.

The losses, both personal and social, caused by addiction are enormous. Families, Fathers & Children provides services to children and families impacted by the incarceration of fathers, and also reaches out to fathers in prison. Program facilitators constantly see the part that addiction plays in these families’ issues.

One way to start understanding is by becoming aware of the roots of addiction. Although they are complex, here are two major factors: mental health and the migration of early adolescents to the “street” culture.

The first failure of society, which feeds this epidemic, is the lack of mental health treatment. The use of drugs and/or alcohol has a chicken-and-egg relationship with mental health. Untreated mental illness causes discomfort which can be numbed by drugs and alcohol. Removing the substance leaves the user with unbearable symptoms, for example, a dark depression which is caused by the misfiring of chemicals from neuron to neuron. Treatable with medications, this depression drowns the person in despair, which he self-medicates with what is available – drugs and alcohol. Substance use affects the connections in our brains, and also can cause its own mental illness. Remember the TV spot: “This is your brain on drugs” with eggs are cooking in a frying pan.

Ignorance of what mental health treatment is separates people from help. Professionals who don’t recognize the connection of medical treatment to releasing people from addiction can provide an obstacle to recovery. I teach a family living and parenting class in a therapeutic community (TC) facility located in a prison. When I see someone in my class who seems to be significantly depressed, bipolar or delusional, if I refer him to a psychiatrist, he will be booted out of the program and probably sent to an upstate facility to serve more time. Therefore, suggesting that he get counseling when he is released seems to me to be the humane solution, although I doubt that he will. And therefore, even after having completed a TC program, he will continue to seek relief via substance abuse.

Further, prejudice against mental health treatment – often cultural and always rooted in ignorance – is a barrier to accessing help. People may say:

“I don’t need to go to the doctor. I’m not crazy.”

“I don’t believe in taking pills. How do I know the doctor isn’t trying to poison me?”

“My son doesn’t need to go to the psychiatrist. Nobody in our family has ever been crazy.”

Just as society needs to be aware of the injustice of inadequate mental health services and mental health outreach and education, people need to open their eyes to the numbers of early adolescents who are lost “to the street,” that is, introduced to drug use early-on. Probably by age 11 or 12, the young teen has migrated to the “street” culture because of his unmet family, community and school needs, the result of abysmally minimal services such as community centers, poorly funded schools and lack of support for fragmented families struggling with poverty, inadequate housing, what is seen as hostile policing, food shortages, unemployment and so on.

Unless those who are privileged with adequate housing, jobs, education and an abundance of needed services, take responsibility for the neighborhood next door, young teens will migrate to the “family” of the street culture. The teen will be accepted and protected. He will become part of the drug community – buying, selling, using. School was boring; the teacher may have been hostile or at least cold. He was hungry and the bag of chips he lifted from the corner store was not enough. He is abandoned. Angry. He feels no one cares about him. He’s right. Society doesn’t.

I will meet this youngster in 10 years in prison. He may have a child, or several. He has followed his dad’s footsteps into prison. Yes, he made a choice to do something criminal. But where were we when he was 11 years old?