What can rats tell us about the dangers of stigma? It turns out, a lot. We recently came across a fascinating study conducted by Dr. Marco Venniro in 2018. In this study, Dr. Venniro set out to observe the behaviors of rats around socialization and substance use, specifically methamphetamine. The researchers gave rats the option between pressing one of two levers: one that released a drug infusion, or the other that opened a door, offering interaction with another rat. The rats opted to open the door more than 90% of the time, even when they had previously self-administered methamphetamine for many days and exhibited patterns that correspond to human addictive behaviors. Remarkably, these rats were willing to go through painful withdrawal from amphetamine addiction for the reward of social interaction.
In describing his results, Dr. Venniro commented, “These results demonstrate that social reward has remarkable protective and restorative effects in rodent addiction models and illustrate the importance of considering social factors in neuropharmacological studies of drug addiction. From a clinical perspective, our findings support wider implementation of social-based behavioral treatments, which not only include the community reinforcement approach, but also innovative social media approaches, such as those being implemented to provide social support before and during drug-seeking episodes.”
While Dr. Venniro’s work promises to advance the use of social factors in treating addiction, it struck me that it also confirms what we at Communities Confronting Substance Abuse (CCSA) have always known: Isolating substance users and stigmatizing the disease of addiction creates additional obstacles for the sufferer to seek help and support. When we as a community signal to those suffering from addiction that we are not willing to be open to the issue, and embrace them in their recovery, we are shutting off the positive social and communal interactions that could be so powerful that they might be willing to go through withdrawal and treatment for that communal support. Even more compellingly, if we can ensure that those at risk for substance misuse or addiction are embraced and encouraged to remain a critical part of the social fabric of the community, perhaps fewer people will feel compelled to turn to substances.
Put simply, if we allow our fellow community members to open that door, they will not feel the need to pull the lever.
You have heard us refer to addiction as a disease of isolation. Sufferers tend to withdraw from positive social interactions precisely because they perceive that they “don’t fit in” or are not valued or wanted. They often view themselves as disappointments or failures to their families and friends. Families, in turn, feel ashamed and embarrassed to discuss their loved one’s struggles and share these issues openly for fear of being judged and shunned.
In our efforts to continue to eliminate stigma around substance misuse and addiction, we are hosting a series of conversations on a variety of topics including substance addiction and misuse in the Jewish community. The next conversation will be held online on Sunday, February 7, at 10:30 a.m. EST. The topic will be “Alcoholism and Drinking in the Jewish Community: Purim, Pesach and Other Holidays and Rituals.”
It is up to us to ensure that every member of our community feels included and valued. This will enable them to seek out the social interactions that will act as protective factors against substance misuse and addiction. Surely, we can aspire to be at least as welcoming and accepting as rats.
Etiel Forman is a 25+ year Teaneck, New Jersey, resident, and serves as executive vice president and general counsel of Duff & Phelps, a global financial advisory firm. Etiel and his wife, Lianne, are proud parents of five children (and grandparents of two grandchildren) and the founders of CCSA, an organization dedicated to creating stigma-free Jewish communities by fostering greater communal support and understanding of these issues through various initiatives including community events, enhancing resources for sufferers and their families and facilitating evidence-based educational programming for students and parents.