Over the last 4 weeks our team has been researching the impact addiction has on families, and today we are presenting a preliminary synthesis of our research. To help us illustrate what we’ve uncovered, we need to first introduce you to a family we have spent time with and interviewed who are currently dealing with addiction.
Patrick is 19 years old. He’s a bright kid from an upper-middle class neighborhood and doesn’t at all fit the stereotype most people have of a drug addict, but he has been in and out of treatment centers for the past 6 years struggling with heroin addiction. His father Phil and his step-mom Gwen, are well educated & successful in their professional lives. The last 6 years have been torture for them. Getting calls that their son has wrecked cars, been arrested, and even been shot, they live in fear that the next call they get might be the one telling them that Patrick has died. There’s absolutely no getting around how difficult and tragic addiction is for the whole family, but as we spoke to them we started to pick up on themes that we could use to inspire design solutions for this wicked problem space.
Before we cemented our themes, we also wanted to talk to non-family members who deal with addiction on a daily basis. We spoke to the executive director of non-profit that provides counseling and support to teens and families dealing with addiction; We rode along with a police office who showed us one of the highest drug crime areas in Austin; and we spoke to an addiction specialist who has been working with addicts for over 20 years. Through these interviews we gathered more information and more perspectives on the problem of addiction.
Upon conclusion of the research phase of our design project, we transcribed our interviews and mapped specific utterances onto the wall of our design studio. In order to keep these quotes ‘alive’ we also hung artifacts and pictures we had taken of our participants on our walls. Our goal is to take the empathy and understanding we gathered to gain insights we can use to design solutions.
What at first just seemed like quotes on a wall, soon started to take shape into the three insights we are presenting today. Those insights all fit broadly into one main theme, “Society thrives on addiction” and specifically are:
- Society uses addiction to avoid dealing with issues & emotions
- Traditional approaches to treating addiction are obsolete and ineffective
- Economic forces continue to perpetuate addiction
Our major takeaway from this whole process is that society is built to be one of addicts. The addiction specialist we interviewed said “this is a very insecure culture we live in.” This insecurity and fear of not being good enough is built into the features of our society: long work days, being judged on monetary worth, being judged on appearances, macho-ism… Our culture rewards those who are constantly striving, and has very few mechanisms for rewarding those who are mindful, thoughtful and whole.
We are also a society of quick fixes. Instead of dealing with our emotions, we look for pharmaceutical solutions; Instead of treating addicts, we lock them up; Instead of looking for root causes, we treat symptoms. Through our research we started to see how ubiquitous this is. We found that this quick fix approach has even taken hold of the treatments we offer to addicts. The models we use to treat addiction are the ones we have used for decades, and they have been shown to be seriously ineffective. Despite how ineffective they are, these antiquated models are the ones that continue to get funding and are the ones that are still most prevalent in our society. The reason we continue to use these ineffective models is that they are easy and one-size-fits-all solutions. It’s easy to determine what to do with an addict when there’s only one option for treating them. While it makes more sense to treat each person individually and to admit not all addicts are the same, our quick fix culture doesn’t allow for that amount of complexity, so we continue to use the same old system.
We also found that there are myriad economic forces at work that create a clear economic incentive to perpetuate addiction; Prisons, pharmaceutical companies, and the alcohol and tobacco industries are big players in addiction and they all turn a blind eye to their part in it. Treatment can be expensive, and people without the economic means to afford treatment are basically condemned to continue their usage. The cycle of incarceration and drug use and drug sales is also something our culture continues to sweep under the rug; People who get arrested for drug offenses end up unable to rejoin regular society because their criminal record keeps them from being able to get jobs that pay a living wage, so they turn to drug sales, which creates a cycle of addiction. There is no economic incentive to deal with addiction, and so it continues to be ignored.
As you can see, these major issues come together to form a bleak picture for our society, but as addicts say “The first step is admitting you have a problem.” Through our research it is clear that there are major problems, and it is our hope that we can use these insights to spawn design solutions that can make an impact on this wicked problem.
To see our full presentation deck, click here.