Car accidents, increased chance of depression and suicide, organ failure and overdose – these are just some of the hundreds of detrimental consequences of the various forms of addiction and substance abuse we are plagued with today. The harsh, scary truth is that drug and alcohol abuse in general is growing and, in some aspects, more lethal than ever. Staggering statistics related to crime and health deterioration clearly show that drugs and alcohol are often linked to these very modern issues society must deal with.
On the flip side, we have been making medical and technological advances that the greatest minds of the 20th century could only dream off. We live in an always connected world, with unfathomable information and resources quite literally, at our fingertips. Why is it that so many people disconnect from society in this connected world and find themselves swallowed by ailments like addiction and substance abuse?
Although the proximity of other human beings and the direct involvement of immediate family in friends in the addiction recovery process has been tried and proven over the past couple of decades, many researchers, engineers and medical professionals in the area are turning to technology. Many experienced recovery centers focusing on the human sort of connectedness in therapy and some now offer specialized programs that claim to focus on “the whole person” and not just the illness. While the effects of family involvement and treating underlying addictions and mental issues along with the addiction, often a result more than a cause, the aftercare process and staying “on the wagon” has proven to be a far longer and rockier road than the one to recovery.
Among the many people looking for practical, easily accessible, private, and connected ways technology can be used in the addiction recovery and post-recovery processes are a couple of MIT scientists who began exploring the possible applications of readily available technology to monitor and help recovering addict in post-recovery and everyday life once outside of the recovery center. Such solutions based on standard technology and medical experience could also affect the expansion of out patient treatment extensively and open the doors to recovery to many more who are troubled by addiction, substance abuse, PTSD, and other similar illnesses.
The folks at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in collaboration with their colleagues at MIT, dubbed the project iHeal and describe it as a “constellation of technologies that incorporate artificial intelligence, continuous biophysical monitoring, wireless connectivity, and smartphone computation,” – in short, all items that are already readily available and could provide fairly low-cost, accessible post-recovery support to many. iHeal’s premise is one that can be said to be based on fact.
The published paper on the topic claims that behavioral modification applied and essential to addiction recovery are relatively successful in controlled environments in clinics and treatment centers, but that they often fail in everyday environments and for the simple reason that, outside controlled environments, recovering individuals have a difficult time recognizing biological and affective changes that increase risk of relapse or triggers in their environment.
Most recovering addicts spend a year getting to know this increased biological and behavioral reactions in themselves, while many never learn to recognize them. Controlling their reactions to such increased risk is even more difficult and enacting a controlled, safe environment is simply not a possibility. Projects like iHeal aim to resolve this, by using technology to indicate these changes, giving recovering patients clear signs that they are at higher risk of relapsing at a given moment and may need to refer to what they were taught in recovery programs.
Technology, of course, is only part of the solution. Decades ago, treatment experts recommended strict isolation of patients in recovery, often blocking any access to the outside world and even family. After years of trial and error, studies and experience have shown that the opposite is true and that the involvement of the nearest and dearest of patients in recovery is an essential part of both recovery and post-recovery. As humans, we crave human connection, but we also need to have a deeper and clearer understanding of ourselves and our reactions to the outside world and those around us. Finding the right combination of factors is often the key to a successful recovery and the crossroads of technology and human interaction may make treatment and recovery more accessible to everyone in a seemingly connected world.