Battling the Drug Epidemic
Startling scientific evidence on how to protect young people from substance abuse.
The current opioid (heroin, opium, etc.) epidemic is the worst drug crisis in American history. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the drug epidemic killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015. “Overdose deaths were nearly equal to the number of deaths from car crashes. In 2015, for the first time, deaths from heroin alone surpassed gun homicides.” [“Inside a Killer Drug Epidemic,” Jan. 6, 2017]
As shocking as the drug epidemic’s lethal magnitude is how its tentacles reach into every sector of American society. The stereotype of the drug addict as an impoverished unfortunate, floundering among the dredges of society, unemployed and unemployable, without family support, has been decimated by the reality of the “new addicts” – from every class of society, every age, every profession, urban and rural, blue states and red states, failures and those who had every reason to succeed.
The Times article tells of Katie Harvey, 24, from the affluent Boston suburb of Marblehead. Katie had been a popular honors student, with “model-worthy good looks.” By the time she was 21, she was hooked on heroin. Katie shot up as often as 15 times a day – heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. She overdosed five times. At the time of the Times interview, Katie was in her 9th attempt at a detox program.
Dan Manus is a 61-year-old Seattle resident who works for the King County Emergency Service Patrol. Hired to rescue street drunks by bringing them into a safe “sobering center” to sleep it off, he now deals more with overdosing drug addicts. “It just seems today that there’s so much more out there, so many more people,” Mr. Manus is quoted in the Times article. “It feels nonstop.”
Based on peer-reviewed, scientific research, she discovered that spirituality is the key in protecting young people from substance abuse.
Is the drug epidemic “nonstop”? Is there any way to forestall its ravages? Psychologist Lisa Miller, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University, maintains that there is. In a decade and a half of scientific research, published in peer-reviewed journals, she discovered that spirituality is the key – more than any other factor – in protecting young people from substance abuse. She writes: “In the entire realm of human experience there is no single factor that will protect your adolescent like a personal sense of spirituality.”
In her book, The Spiritual Child, a New York Times bestseller, Dr. Miller shares the results of her scientific studies. Her research shows that young people who have a positive relationship to spirituality are:
- 40% less likely to use and abuse substances
- 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers
- 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex
They also have significantly more positive markers for thriving, including an increased sense of meaning and purpose, and high levels of academic success.
Through the Lens of Science
Dr. Miller’s research flies in the face of more than a century of debunking spirituality as a “crutch” for the psychologically feeble. Freud characterized religiosity as a neurosis. For generations, the “enlightened and scientific” segments of Western society have derided spirituality as outdated and escapist. Just last week, my young friend Julie told me, “At a family function, I overheard my mother-in-law telling a cousin, ‘I don’t know why Julie is becoming more religious. She must be psychologically needy.’”
Dr. Miller was determined to use science itself to ferret out the truth. She writes: “Science is a lens, a way of understanding just about anything, including, as it turns out, spirituality. Science is particularly powerful in deciphering things difficult to perceive with the naked eye, which has made it all the more valuable as we search for tangible evidence to explain our relationship with an essentially intangible realm.”
A significant body of research findings had already demonstrated among adults that more religion and spirituality correlates with greater mental health and less substance abuse. As Dr. Kenneth Pargament wrote in a 2014 review of such research: “Greater religion or spirituality has been associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms, fewer symptoms of posttraumatic stress, fewer eating disorder symptoms, fewer negative symptoms in schizophrenia, less perceived stress, lower risk of suicide, and less personality disorder.” Citing the inverse relationship between religiousness and substance abuse, Dr. Pargament wrote: “Among those recovering from substance abuse, higher levels of religion and spirituality are associated with a more optimistic life orientation, increased resilience to stress, greater perceived social support, and lower levels of anxiety.”i
Dr. Lisa Miller focused her research on the effects of spirituality on children and teenagers, as well as inter-generational effects of shared spirituality. She tells of her experience on a New York subway, where she saw a grandmother and granddaughter exchange a nod of agreement about a spiritual action. At the time, she was investigating families that are prone to depression.
I got to the lab [at Columbia University] twenty minutes later and ran an equation testing the effect of the nod – shared spirituality taught and received between parent and child – on the depression data. Now I asked: Does spirituality shared between a depressed mother and her child counteract, at all, in any measure, the generational slide of depression?
…There are few moments in science when the results are astonishing. These findings were the most amazing science I had ever seen. They were statistically robust beyond any previously examined protective factor published in scientific literature. If the mother and her son or daughter both reported the same personal relationship with a religion, then there was a dramatic positive effect – shared spirituality was over 80 percent protective in a sample of families otherwise at very high risk for depression. [p. 87]
Dr. Miller maintains that spirituality is innate in human beings. “Science from many labs and researchers demonstrates that spirituality is innate, that it is a faculty that grows with attention and can be stunted by neglect, and that there is no substitute for it.”
An adolescent’s quest for individuation either rests on a core sense of spirituality or is deflected into shortcuts like alcohol and drugs that give a fleeting sense of transcendence.
The fall-out from suppressing a child’s natural spirituality is grave. “We can see the crisis in the making when spiritual development is neglected or when a child’s individual spiritual curiosity and exploration is denied. In a culture where often enormous amounts of money, empty fame, and cynicism have become toxic dominant values, our children need us to support their quest for a spiritually grounded life at every age.”
Dr. Miller asserts that an adolescent’s natural quest for individuation – ideas of right and wrong, his place in the world, the meaning and purpose of life – either rests on a core sense of spirituality or are deflected into “spirituality shortcuts” such as alcohol and drugs, which give a fleeting sense of transcendence.
In a study of spiritual individuation published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, we found that a developed personal relationship with God (expressed in comments such as, “I turn to God for guidance in times of difficulty,” or “When I have a decision to make, I ask God what I should do”) was highly protective against slipping from experimenting with to addiction to alcohol and drugs. [p. 43]
Had her innate spirituality been encouraged, Katie Harvey’s story may have turned out very different.
What is Spirituality?
Dr. Miller defines “spirituality” as: an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding.
This definition syncs well with the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Our sages explain that this is a commandment to believe in God, specifically in a God who intervenes in human affairs – both nationally and personally – for our ultimate benefit.
The God that Judaism bequeathed to the world is a God who loves you and therefore guides you. Forging a loving relationship with this God is the crux of Judaism.
Ironically, our generation’s revival of interest in spirituality includes meditation, yoga, and mindfulness, but many of these practices are devoid of a relationship with a personal God “that is loving and guiding.” Greater consciousness is encouraged but God is nowhere in the picture.
In a conversation with me, Dr. Lisa Miller cited a recent study of 6,000 college students. For 85% of them, their bearings in life (which she defined as their character strengths and virtues) are anchored in their belief in God. A relationship with God anchors a young person in the turbulent sea of modern life, tempest-tossed by rampant substance abuse, casual hookups, the dissolution of the nuclear family, and social, financial, and political uncertainties.
“If someone believes in something that is metaphysical,” explains Dr. David Rosmarin, who has studied the effect of belief in God on psychiatric treatment results, “if someone believes in something spiritual, which would ostensibly be eternal, permanent, unwavering, omnipotent, then that could be an important resource to them, particularly in times of emotional distress.”
A relationship with a Higher Power that is loving and guiding has an abundance of benefits.
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i. Samuel R. Weber and Kenneth I. Pargament, “The Role of Religion and Spirituality in Mental Health,” Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 2014.