Nov 11, 2013

Changing whole cultures to stop addiction and achieve better health

I wrote a few lines for a massive new publication detailing what it takes to address the epidemic of heroin addiction and overdose death now playing out in Northern Kentucky. 

The story appeared in the Cincinnati paper yesterday. The 50-page report, one of the best analysis and action plans I have ever seen addressing addiction and overdose death, is available here. When I read the report I found to my surprise that an excerpt from my contribution was the last word, the call to action. 

Here's my whole essay.

Addiction and mental illness is personal, but when problems pervade whole cultures, we need a whole-culture solution too.

What does it take to create a culture of safety and good health?

Life is an immersive experience we are all adapting to. The culture of addiction and sickness is really a kind of narrative, a movie – and we are living in it. People act out the movie that’s running in their head. When the movie changes, people change, and their actions and relationships change.

Time and technology have changed how people experience the world. Through the 19th Century, the experience of the world was natural, concrete and local, bound up in family experiences, structured belief systems, and local cultural experiences. Today’s world is a different movie, with a narrative built from instantaneous communications and mass media. Even so, the genuine experiences of life continue to deliver the most powerful wallop.

Person-to-person interactions, genuine relationships, family life, travel, work, and neighborliness connect with our essential natures, and retain great power and influence. Pathways to personal change still involve relationships, transformative experiences, shared culture, stories, learning, and growth. Sustaining personal change takes motivation, an ideology or program of recovery, commitment, and mutual support.

The cultural environment shaping people’s stories can be influenced using all the tools of modern life. We can create a culture of safety and good health, built from positive stories of resilience and transformation. We can make it easier to build relationships with people who have overcome challenges, and are themselves transformed. This paves the way for the meaningful talk, person to person. Anonymity is proper for individual work or intensive work – but the larger world needs characters and a story line, a movie to walk into and live out.

We can build a cultural narrative of safety and sobriety using the same techniques that consumer products firms use to influence customer behavior. Make it understood, easy to do, desirable, rewarding, and a habit. Let people see the proof and payoff.

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