Addiction is a poorly understood problem that is usually treated as a moral or criminal problem. Does this sound familiar? This notion is the status quo in America today. This is exactly how mental health problems were understood two hundred years ago. If we understand addiction as a mental health problem, you might say that things haven’t changed much.
But as far back as 1813, the Quakers had already realized that this wasn’t right. So they consciously set out to revolutionize the way that mental health treatment was delivered in this country, opening the ‘Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason’ in Philadelphia. This was the very first private mental health treatment facility in the country. It still operates today, and is known by the less wordy name, ‘Friends Hospital.’
The idea was that those suffering from mental health problems were deserving of compassionate, authentic care. One had a sense when visiting the facility that there was a leveling between the treatment professionals and the patients, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. The patients were provided this care within a beautiful setting, surrounded by gardens and farmland. The hospital regularly reported that 50% of their patients left cured. Compare that to just 10% in modern drug treatment.
For the Quakers, it was crucial that theirs was a brand new kind of approach to treatment. This was their mission statement: “To provide for the suitable accommodation of persons who are or may be deprived of the use of their reason, and the maintenance of an asylum for their reception, which is intended to furnish, besides requisite medical aid, such tender, sympathetic attention as may soothe their agitated minds, and under the Divine Blessing, facilitate their recovery.” After years of chaining up patients, performing ‘bleedings,’ or using strange contraptions to spin people around, this was a truly revolutionary approach.
We could argue that addiction treatment is only finally just catching up to this philosophy. Still, drug and alcohol treatment is provided with an often punitive approach. Many centers shame their clients, based on a questionable assumption that people suffering from addiction need to have their ‘wings clipped.’ A strange, hateful form of 12-step philosophy are forced upon people. And the frustrated, unwell patients are met with the combative natures of their frustrated, unwell staff. When the focus is on compliance, control is the name of the game.
But isn’t it time for connection instead of control? Are we not ready for a return to the two hundred year old idea that they Quakers knew really worked? That “if treated with kindness, dignity, and respect,” people tended to do a lot better than when they were treated like failures and defectives. We may not chain and beat our clients anymore – not literally anyway – but that same spirit still exists in many of our nation’s treatment centers.
The ‘moral approach’ of the Quakers at the Friends Hospital to this day includes involving patients in decision-making about their own care. And never, ever is punishment used to force compliance. We at Alo House hope to learn from this special chapter in American history, like every treatment center could, and to carry the legacy of the ‘Friends’ model of care into the 21st Century.
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