Rat Park: How Despair Fuels Addiction

Jessie Dunleavy
Image Taton Moise

When I was young, I believed that all it took to become addicted to heroin was to use it one time. It was a path of no return. All people were equally vulnerable. And it was all about the drug.

Most people would agree that this sort of thinking is overly simplistic, but few realize it bears no resemblance to the truth. Yet in many ways, it underpins our drug policies, our attitudes, and our failure to move beyond the epidemic that is upon us.

Loving a person who suffers with addiction is its own kind of teacher, one that rarely affords clarity of thought much less the luxury of research. While there were certainly times of smooth sailing, I initially used these to catch my breath, focus elsewhere, and maybe even deny the problem. But I remember the day when I realized I wasn’t always getting good advice and that I needed to seek a deeper understanding on my own.

While I was just scratching the surface, I started by reading two books practically in one sit-down. For reasons I can’t explain, my selections —Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz and Blessed are the Addicts by John A. Martin — were written twenty-five years apart by authors with little in common. But each drove home the fact that addiction starts before the drug use, and that childhood trauma or other environmental factors create the vulnerability to addiction.

In tooling around on the internet, the rat studies grabbed my attention. In the mid-1900s laboratory experiments provided caged rats two options for water—one plain drinking water and the other laced with an addictive drug. The drugged water was favored, and the rats returned to it so frequently that they eventually killed themselves. Because these animals lost control of their behavior to the point of their own demise, the conclusion was twofold: the drug was irresistible and it was lethal.

In these lab studies, each rat was isolated in a small individual cage. Years later, another scientific experiment—dubbed the Rat Park—provided a large cage to house multiple rats, along with wheels and tunnels and space to explore. These rats were given the same two choices for water but favored the plain water. And none died of an overdose.

Even more telling, and actually amazing to me, this study then moved isolated and addicted rats into the Rat Park and found that they eventually stopped drinking the drugged water in favor of the plain water and a normal life. These findings reveal that it's not just the presence of drugs, or the extent of their availability, that drives chronic use.

Obviously human beings are more complex and no two cases are identical. But it’s a mistake to underestimate the significance of environmental factors. Simply put, addiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In fact, research reveals commonalities among those who are vulnerable to addiction, linking it to despair. Some have gone so far as to say that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s a life worth living.

While some researchers have reported mixed results in similar studies, the point that despair plays a significant role in separating those who use drugs and walk away or even outgrow problematic drug use, from those who succumb to long-term chronic addiction.

Yet in the U.S., the War on Drugs does nothing to address the harm created by criminalizing those already in despair despite thirty years of longitudinal studies that support the notion of its ineffectiveness. Maybe this explains why the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 5% of the word’s population, and 25% of its prisoners.

When the punishment model that is used in the U.S. is compared to the more lenient policies in Europe, the findings reveal that drug use as well as overdose deaths are significantly higher here. Once again, the U.S. is the world leader.

Published in February 2019, a study out of the University of Southern California compared the U.S. to 17 other wealthy nations and found that our level of overdose deaths has outpaced other nations for more than a decade, and that, “On average, drug overdose mortality was 3.5 times higher in the US than in its peer countries, although this figure ranged from 1.6 to 28 times higher.”

Study after study reveal that the U.S. needs to dramatically expand: (1) evidence-based addiction treatment; and (2) the life-saving harm reduction services provided in peer countries. Hand in hand with these initiatives is the need for a more humane approach to those who suffer and the recognition of the tremendous harm inflicted by the mind-set that perpetuates the War on Drugs.


Jessie Dunleavy is a Shatterproof Ambassador. This piece originally appeared on her website; republished with permission.