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What makes some youth and young adults more susceptible to developing substance abuse problems and addictions? To what extent do drugs and alcohol “cause” addictions, versus the role of toxic stressors such as adverse childhood events (ACE’s), poverty and loneliness? Some studies suggest it has more to do with their zip codes than their genetic codes. Many TAY habitually use substances to cope with overwhelming distress. It may be the only tool they’ve discovered so far that provides them relief (however temporary).
Many people may recall seeing compelling video of caged rats in their Psych 101 classes. In these gruesome experiments, isolated rats can be seen guzzling the drug-laced water instead of the regular H2O, until they collapsed and died. A persuasive testimonial to the powerful addictive qualities of drugs. Some argue that it is this “demon drug” view that perpetuates the War on Drugs, which many see as futile and destructive as it ensnares so many of our youth in the criminal justice system.
But what if it’s the cage more than the drugs and “predisposed” rats that drives this destructive dependency on substances? Bruce Alexander, a Canadian Psychology Professor, conducted a series of experiments to test this hypothesis. Instead of keeping the rats in barren, isolated cages, Alexander created “rat heavens” for his lucky subjects to inhabit. An enclosure was created, chock-full of colorful balls, wheels, places to hide and plenty of rat play-mates to have sex with. These fortunate rodents ignored the drug-water. Even the rats that Alexander purposely addicted to drugs and alcohol avoided the intoxicants when later introduced to Rat Park.
Let me be clear, youth and young adults are not rats in a cage (although some of them would argue the point). In his excellent TED talk (“Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”, Johann Hari makes a thought-provoking statement: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection”. As TAY Service Providers, what can we do help build and sustain this sense of connection, this sense of belonging and community? What are we doing that develops resiliency and hopeful futures for our youth? These studies suggest it won’t be enough to focus only on changing vulnerable young people.