Topics: Culture of Addiction, Mental Illness and AOT, Crises of Connection
On this episode of Solutions News, we interview Barry Schoer, Executive Director of the Sanctuary Centers, and a lifelong advocate for the humane and effective treatment of those who live with addiction and mental health issues. We explore the cultural implications of the current addiction crises in the United States and the world. We discuss how community based supportive living situations are a more effective and humane solution for the seriously ill rather than abandoning them to fend for themselves on the street or in the prison system. We end the show with a look at the crisis for connection that affects much of the world, and how we each might find our way towards human connection.
Story #1: The Culture of Addiction
There are many types of addiction: the ones we hear about, like the current crisis that is the opioid epidemic, and the others, such as shopping or watching television. Addiction is taking over society partly because of deteriorating family and cultural ties and pressures of the modern day.
Dr. Bruce K. Alexander spent years researching rats and their responses to morphine in efforts to better understand addiction. He found that rats were deliberately injecting themselves with the drug, often times to the point of death. It was eventually discovered that rats, much like humans, are social beings. Because of this connect, we can start to understand why people in horribly miserable situations are pushed toward addiction. We must focus on the human interpretation of this rat research, understanding that kindness, sociability, friendship, and love are often better antidotes for addiction than the criminal approach we are using now.
Story #2: Humane Treatment of Mental Illness
It is estimated that over 355,000 inmates in America’s prisons and jails suffered from severe mental illness in 2012, and it is likely much worse than that today. Over 100,000 homeless Americans also suffer from severe mental illness. The mentally ill are now often left to fend for themselves on the streets due to the country’s lack of adequate outpatient services.
Community-based approaches to mental health care are providing hope for the mentally ill. New York is working on this approach beginning with Kendra’s Law in 1999 to legalize Assisted Outpatient Treatment. Various studies show promising results for this type of treatment with 46 states now having them enacted. We are in need of novel approach to mental illness care, keeping in mind the difficulty of forcing treatment on patients.
Story #3: Curing our Crisis of Connection
There is a type of addiction that is quite different than the others we have talked about on this show, and that is the addiction of connection (or lack thereof) and social media. When we feel disconnected, we very quickly experience loneliness due to a lack of meaningful social interaction. We feel pressured to “fit in” and “suck it up,” always forcing ourselves to be polished and strong. Social media has taken over our lives, frequently replacing in-person socialization.
According to Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Professor Brené Brown, it takes courage to stand alone and actively seek true connection. We discuss several ways to make these human connections, ranging from weekly dinner plans with friends to simply asking for help. While social media may be dominating us currently, there is hope to evolve away from our phones and back into a comfortable, sociable, and lively state.
As a child growing up in New York, Barry Schoer couldn’t understand why his mother behaved the way she did and why he couldn’t help her. As a teenager, he was advised by a high school counselor to volunteer at a school for disabled children. Unfortunately, Barry was never able to help his mother, but his experience helping developmentally disabled children led him to find his purpose in helping others.
Barry worked as an undergraduate to help change the laws in New York State so that individuals with addiction were placed in treatment rather than in jails and prisons. During his graduate program, Barry interned at Bellevue Hospital, where he was trained and then hired as a licensed psychiatric technician. It was Bellevue Hospital where Barry observed everything he believed was wrong with mental health treatment. This included inhumane conditions, excessive use of electroconvulsive therapy, the overuse of psychotropic medications without regard for long-term side effects, and the complete lack of any type of individual or group therapeutic engagement.
Barry eventually moved to California because he had read that treatment of mentally ill individuals was far more advanced and compassionate on the west coast. During his years working in the psychiatric unit at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, various nonprofits, and the County of Santa Barbara, Barry focused on finding ways to improve treatment and open new opportunities for children and adults living with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues.
In 1983, the President of the Board of Sanctuary House called Barry and asked him if he would take the position of Executive Director. He committed to staying a maximum of two years as he had other goals he wanted to pursue. Thirty-five years later, he is still here because the Board of Directors has continuously allowed him to nurture and grow Sanctuary Centers into a comprehensive system of care that puts respect for each and every client first. Barry remains unwavering in his commitment to Sanctuary Centers and our ongoing goal to treat each and every client as an individual not a diagnosis.