Best-selling author and drug war critic Johann Hari shares inspirational message with Sonoma County social workers

Many Sonoma County social workers and therapists attending Johann Hari’s lecture Thursday night at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts already had an idea, if not a firm belief, that the decades-old and misdirected war on drugs had does more harm than good.

The real causes of addiction were isolation, loneliness, trauma and a history of abuse, the New York Times bestselling author said. This story resonated with viewers, who regularly witness human pain and suffering in homes and on the streets.

“The war on drugs is based on the idea that if someone has a problem with addiction, we have to punish them in order to get them to quit,” Hari said. “We have to inflict pain on them in order to get them to stop. But once you understand that pain drives addiction, pain drives addiction, you can suddenly see…the war on drugs makes addiction worse.

Hari didn’t completely dismiss the concept of a “chemical hook,” or chemical dependence on a drug. But he said unmet “natural psychological needs” are much more powerful determinants of addictions.

“You have to feel like you belong, you have to feel like your life has meaning and purpose; you need to feel that people see you and appreciate you; you have to feel like you have a meaningful future,” Hari said.

“And this culture that we’ve built is good at a lot of things – I’m happy to be alive today,” he added. “But we’ve been getting worse and worse at meeting people’s deep underlying psychological needs for a long time.”

Hari’s 90-minute lecture on Thursday was sponsored by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services and Change Leadership, as part of a statewide effort to prevent suicide and promote mental health and well-being of students.

Local health officials said the conference is part of the county’s ongoing efforts to fight the stigma of substance abuse, break down barriers to seeking treatment, and provide education and resources to residents affected by substance abuse. .

In introducing Hari, County Health Services Director Tina Rivera challenged the audience, many of whom were behavioral health professionals, to “go beyond mere inspiration.”

“I want us to leave with the revelation that things can change, things have to change,” Rivera said. “And that we can be part of that change, whether it’s a change in yourself, a change in your jobs, a change in your families, a change in your communities, whatever change needs to be made in your life.”

Hari’s books, which include bestsellers Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections, explore how the loss of true human connection in modern society has led to ever-increasing levels of depression, anxiety and addiction.

Hari, whose father was Swiss and mother Scottish, was born in Glasgow but moved to London with his family when he was one and has lived most of his life there. He studied social and political science at King’s College Cambridge.

Hari’s earlier career as a journalist was marred by acts of plagiarism where he used quotes given to other journalists and featured them as part of his interviews. Hari has repeatedly apologized for the missteps, which he told a reporter from The Press Democrat was a “very bad error in judgment on my part”.

His books have been praised by a wide range of people and include blurbs by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Arriana Huffington, Hillary Clinton and Elton John. On the TED website, Hari’s 2015 speech on addiction received more than 19 million views, and his 2019 speech on depression and anxiety has been viewed more than 15 million times.

During the event at the Luther Burbank Center, Hari laced his talk with generous doses of humor, irreverence and heartfelt emotion. He has told many stories about some of his journalistic trips to places like Germany, Canada and the United States.

Hari also cited the work of researchers like Bruce Alexander, a Canadian professor and psychologist who in the 1970s challenged addiction research involving rats placed alone in a cage and offered two bottles. One contained pure water and the other contained water and heroin or cocaine. The rats after, after a while, repeatedly drank drug-tinged water until they overdosed and died.

Hari said that for his experiments, Alexander “built a cage he called Rat Park, which is basically a haven for rats. They have lots of friends, they have lots of cheese, they can have lots of sex. , everything a rat loves in life is there in the rat pen.

Alexander discovered that in Rat Park the rats were trying to drug the water but they didn’t like it. In fact, they barely use it, and none of them overdose, Hari said. “When you look at the difference between these two cages, when the rats don’t have the things that make life worth living, when their needs aren’t being met, they want to anesthetize a lot, they seek the medicine,” he said. .

Hari argued that’s exactly what happened to humans during the pandemic, when rates of depression and anxiety doubled and fatal overdoses in the United States reached record levels. He said that during the pandemic, people’s “deep, underlying psychological needs” were going unmet.

“In fact, all of our lives have become like the lives of those rats in the first experience,” he said, adding that the past two years have seen an increase in disconnection, stress and trauma; and consequently an increase in addiction, depression and anxiety.

After the conference, Jacy Resendez, senior customer support specialist for the county behavioral health division’s seniors team, stood in line to get Hari’s books signed. Resendez said she liked how Hari equated mental health issues with isolation and a lack of community; it’s something she witnesses with her clients.

“Sometimes I’m the only person they have contact with – they’re isolated and depressed,” she said, adding that part of her job is to help older people expand their community.

Jerry La Londe-Berg, a local social worker who retired the day before the conference, said he was particularly stuck with Hari’s argument that “the solution to addiction was connection.”

“It really is,” said La Londe-Berg. “The opportunity not to be judged, but to be listened to will give people the space to address their addiction.”

La Londe-Berg is part of a non-profit organization called SHARE Sonoma County, which has rooms, studios, or granny units available for those in need of housing.

You can reach editor Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or [email protected] On Twitter @pressreno.

Lola R. McClure