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Rat Park: the Importance of Good Mental Health

The ways we have been approaching substance abuse and addiction in the past are not working.

Since the popularization of the “War on Drugs,” criminalization of addiction has exploded prison populations, dehumanized those that struggle with substance abuse, and negatively impacted the way we handle and tailor substance abuse treatment and drug rehabilitation.  Treatment becomes focused around judicial and physical rehabilitation. How can we keep the addict from going back to the streets and a life of crime? How do we counteract the physical and psychological allure of drug consumption and its addictive nature? The focus is often on the end result, while undermining the effect that creating and maintaining good mental health can have on the process. Good mental health and a positive, strong social support system can create the fundamental foundation needed for maintaining a life of sobriety after addiction. Those who are seeking to break the cycle of addiction often meet societal rejection and condemnation for their past substance abuse. These experiences, coupled with social presumptions that they will fall back into addiction, encourage poor mental health and can sabotage a potentially successful substance abuse treatment. The lack of focus on maintaining good mental health and providing mental health services can become a hindering factor for those going through drug rehab, perpetuating the cycle of addiction. The addition and focus on mental health treatment and providing mental health services for those going through drug rehabilitation and substance abuse treatment, therefore, becomes a must.

The importance of good mental health and strong social support during substance abuse treatment can be compared to the drug addiction experiment performed in the late 1970s called “Rat Park.” In this experiment, Professor Bruce K. Alexander studied whether continued drug addiction was entirely due to the effects of drug consumption, or whether outside factors could have an influence on the potential for addiction. He took two groups of rats and separated them into two separate enclosures. Half were placed in single, standard cages with each rat being completely isolated. The other half were placed in a giant, specially-built open enclosure that had walls painted to look like woodlands, and cedar shavings and dozens of boxes for the rats to nest and play in, essentially providing everything needed to keep the rats happy. Most significantly, the rats inhabiting this enclosure were able to play, fight, and socially engage with one another. This enclosure became known as “Rat Park.” The scientists began to offer morphine to both sets of rats, mixing the drug into a sugary water concoction the rats’ taste buds could hardly resist. However, the rats that were isolated in the metal cages were far quicker to start drinking the morphine-water, and consumed in much higher volumes. Cage consumption of the morphine-water was nineteen times higher than that of the Rat Park rats. Despite being freely-available, the morphine-water went largely untouched within Rat Park as the rats preferred their social life and engagement to the drug’s effects.

Most surprising was the results of the second stage of the experiment, when the scientists experimented with rats deliberately made addicted to morphine, observing whether a difference in environment would impact the rats’ drug rehabilitation process. The rats were given only morphine-water for nine days, then given a “free day” where they could choose between morphine-water or regular water. Of the two groups, the rats that were kept in the isolated cages not only continued drinking the morphine-water, but increased their intake. However, the Rat Park rats drank significantly less of the morphine-water and actively attempted to resist consuming the drug, even when withdrawal symptoms were experienced.  Despite both groups being physically dependent, the Rat Park rats deliberately tried to return to a social life undisrupted by the drug, choosing to endure the effects of morphine withdrawal. From the study, Professor Alexander concluded that continued substance abuse was not simply due to the effects of the drug, but that certain environmental factors could trigger a higher likelihood of addiction. More specifically, the Rat Park rats that were provided with tools that benefited their mental health, i.e., freedom to run around, toys to encourage play, and active socialization with others, were not only less likely to consume the morphine-water, but when forcibly made addicted, were more likely to resist the drug and pursue sobriety.
The experiment “Rat Park” showed the importance that good mental health can play in overcoming addiction. By nurturing good mental health through mental health treatment and services, a person struggling with addiction can find the encouragement and support necessary for their substance abuse treatment. They are more likely to be successful after their rehabilitation and remain sober in the future. Strong support from family and friends is fundamental, but so is the access to and inclusion of mental health services, such as Lifeline Connections and other rehabilitation centers, in the overall individual substance abuse treatment. When dealing with addiction in Vancouver, it is important that we do not approach substance abuse treatment as being separate from mental health and mental health treatment, but as coinciding. Drug rehabilitation and treatment in the city of Vancouver must be treated with Vancouver mental health at the forefront, with mental health services made readily available and implemented as part of the drug rehab process.

To read a more in-depth explanation of Professor Alexander’s “Rat Park” experiment, check out this Stuart McMillen comic.

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