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February 23, 2020

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Soft skills an answer to addiction?

Kevin Risner has a BS in Journalism and an MA in Theology. He is a native of Hardin County and serves as the Prescription Drug Overdose Prevention Program Coordinator for the Kenton-Hardin Health Department.

Substance Abuse and Connections

Could we have been wrong about one important aspect of substance abuse? Could it be that something else is going on within the lives of those with substance use disorders that we should consider?

A new phrase is now part of the substance abuse rehabilitation culture. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection.”

The statement apparently originates from a TED Talk by British journalist Johann Hari. Hari seems to have done his homework well for presenting “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” Hari reviewed addiction research, including the research of Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander. A link to Hari’s TED Talk in on the Kenton-Hardin Health Department web page (hardinhealth.org) and Facebook page.

Alexander reviewed earlier research in which rats were placed alone in small cages with two water bottles. One bottle contained only water while the second bottle contained water laced with heroin. As expected, each rat preferred the heroin-laced water, became ‘addicted’ and died of overdose. Alexander thought the research was flawed, though. When he conducted similar research, he created what he called ‘rat park.’ Rat park was much larger than the small individual cages, had plenty toys and lots of other rats. Rat park had the same two water bottles as the first study. What Alexander observed was that the rats in rat park enjoyed life together and ignored the heroin-laced water. Even rats that had been transferred from the single cage setting that were already ‘addicted’ to heroin ignored the heroin-laced water and integrated successfully into the rat park community. People are not rats, but the findings might well inform us about people and the value of connections.

Research by others tend to support the notion that healthy human connections (and meaningful employment) help prevent individuals from becoming addicted to drugs. Researchers have also found that learning problem-solving skills and improved social skills are an important part of treatment programs. Connections.

It may not be an irony that we have reached a time when employers are saying young people need to learn more about ‘soft skills’ to be better employees. Our local county schools are in the early stages of developing programs for promoting and teaching more soft skills for future employment – skills that are very similar, even identical in some ways, to basic life skills.

Most soft skills for employment are basically skills of good communication and healthy interaction with other people. Perhaps that is why Ohio’s ‘Start Talking!’ program is effective. Most youth who avoid substance abuse credit their parents for the decision to not abuse drugs. ‘Start Talking!’ urges parents to talk to their kids about drug use and other important issues of life. When parents connect and communicate effectively with their kids they are helping build basic communication and life skills that may prevent substance use disorders by their children. Parents can learn more about the ‘Start Talking!’ program by visiting starttalking.ohio.gov. A link to the website in on the Kenton-Hardin Health Department website as well. The ‘Start Talking!’ website offers tips for starting conversations with kids, information about safely storing medications at home, and information about the signs and symptoms of substance abuse.

Good soft skills or life skills promote healthy human connections. So maybe connections really are a major key as we seek answers to the drug abuse challenge. Maybe the opposite of addiction really is not sobriety. Maybe it really is connection.

Parents and others can also learn more about ‘Start Talking!’ and other local efforts to reduce substance abuse by contacting the Kenton-Hardin Health Department at 419-673-6230.