What the Rat in the Cage Tells Us about the Causes of Addiction

What the Rat in the Cage Tells Us about the Causes of Addiction

There is a famous addiction experiment, known as Rat Park, conducted in the 1970s by researchers in Vancouver that shows rats are more likely to become use cocaine when they have nothing else to do. Specifically, the researchers created two different cages. In both cages, they hung two water bottles—one was regular water, the other bottle was laced with cocaine. The difference was one of the cages was left barren, while the other was given every amenity and play area a rat could dream of.

The result? The rats in Rat Park consumed 75% less cocaine water and didn’t seem particularly interested in the cocaine bottle. Meanwhile, most of the rats in the barren cage started consuming the cocaine water heavily or exclusively, to the point that many died of excessive use.

Researchers then started looking for evidence in humans to support this theory about our surroundings playing a central role in drug addiction. Given the time they were living in, the researchers didn’t have to look very hard. The Vietnam War was coming to an end, and because cocaine, heroin, and marijuana use were known to be common among U.S. soldiers, a lot of people were terrified there would be a public health crisis of prolific substance abuse. Never happened. Needless to say, most soldiers struggle to transition after their active service, and there is a correlation between veterans, drug use, and PTSD. But this, too, only reinforces the importance of the cage we live in. What veterans tended to bring back with them wasn’t drug addiction, so much as the war itself.

Addiction, the Human Cage, and Socio-Economic Status

The Vietnam War provides a stark contrast in living conditions, but everyone lives in their version of a cage. And whether it’s wall art, entertainment, starting a new hobby, or healthy delicious food three times a day, in the real world, you need money to make your cage fun to play in. Thus, this theory could help explain why poverty is so highly correlated with substance abuse. It’s not just, or even primarily, that addicts are less likely to make money. It’s also that making less money leaves you vulnerable to addiction.

Yet, there’s still plenty of room to explain why people with higher socio-economic status also fall victim to substance abuse. People with clinical depression, anxiety, psychosis, or post-traumatic stress tend to use drugs at a higher rate as a way to self-medicate. No matter how good the cage looks, these individuals, as part of their mental disorder, have trouble experiencing and benefitting from the cage’s soothing effects.

Personalized Treatment Plans for People in Utah

The rat in the cage has a lot to tell us, but addiction is not a single, one-size-fits-all story. And people are a lot more complicated than rats. Thus, it’s important to understand the boundaries of your mental landscape so you know who to remake a cage that will help you permanently kick your drug habit. Here are some common ways in which personalized treatment plans use these concepts to help individuals achieve success.

  • Substance Abuse Treatment and Social Services: Within the Utah Health Department, people can find targeted assistance through the Division of Services for People with Disabilities and the Division of Child and Family Services, as well as the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. But there’s also the Department of Workforce Services to help struggling individuals find gainful employment. Don’t know where to start? Clinical social workers are something of a catch-all for mental health services, offering mental health therapy as well as networking support through the state’s various resources and agencies. For many people in the state, these resources are the best way to make substantial changes to their living conditions.
  • Coordinated and Integrated Treatment for Dual Diagnosis: For those struggling with addiction as well as another mental disorder, a personalized treatment plan is crucial. This treatment is often provided through an integrated plan created with a mental health provider, though individuals may discover that focusing on one problem first provides something of a key to deal with the other. For example, someone with borderline personality disorder may struggle to develop their emotion regulation until they stop drinking. Other people may find it impossible to stop using illicit drugs, until they get a handle on their long-standing depression or anxiety disorder.
  • Wilderness Therapy in Utah: Here’s one of the most dramatic examples of changing the cage. Designed for teenagers and young adults, wilderness therapy is usually built around a 2-3 month stay in the wilderness. These programs offer clinical therapy services and wilderness guides that seek to leverage the therapeutic environment of Utah’s natural beauty. Not coincidentally, addiction is one of the most common reasons for enrollment.
Marcus Pickett

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