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Recovery from Addiction: Becoming Aware of Cultural Influences

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Re-interpretation is a helpful technique but we cannot re-interpret something if we are unaware of it. Most social and cultural forces exert their influence without any conscious awareness of it. Therefore, it can be vitally important to know and appreciate the various cultures that influence us. Consider who "my people(s)" might be:

  • Race and ethnicity
  • Income
  • Social status
  • Educational background
  • Sexual orientation
  • Employment
  • Geographic region
  • Rural or urban resident
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Age
  • National origin
  • Disability status
  • Military or veteran status
  • Medical status
  • Mental health status
  • Personality characteristics
  • Special interest groups
  • Citizenship status (e.g. migrant workers)
  • Legal status (Are you a convicted felon?)

When we view culture in this comprehensive manner, it becomes quite clear that knowing and appreciating our various cultures is quite a significant undertaking.

Here are some questions to consider as you think about your cultures:

  • Do "my people(s)" view themselves as defeated and deprived?
  • Do we live life from a depressed and hopeless perspective?
  • Do we view life as one great party where we strive to have as much fun as possible?
  • Do we view all substances as sinful so that we need to abstain from them?
  • Do we see ourselves as impoverished, oppressed, or at risk of extinction?
  • Regardless of what culture I identify with, in what ways has my culture shaped my attitude toward addiction?
  • What are the norms of my culture toward intoxication?
  • What changes are needed to stop promoting addiction and to instead discourage it?
  • How can we accomplish these changes? For instance, addiction in impoverished areas declines when residents have better opportunities for advancement. Alcohol consumption goes down with higher taxes (which raise the price).

Culture is a powerful influence but most people are not aware of this influence. A cultural and social assessment is a helpful part of a personal recovery plan. What groups do I belong to? What are the beliefs and attitudes of these groups? Given my exposure to these groups, which beliefs and attitudes did I adopt? Which of these beliefs and attitudes are helpful? Which ones are not?

Do you belong to one of the cultures where families typically model moderate alcohol use? For instance Italian, Spanish, French, Greek, Jewish and Chinese do not usually have significant alcohol problems. In these cultures, drinking does not typically occur for the sake of getting high. Rather, it occurs in the context of a meal, ritual, or celebration. Or, do you belong to one of the heavy-drinking cultures where alcohol abuse, and/or other drug abuse, is more the norm? This includes the cultures and sub-cultures of Russia, Ireland, Scotland, and various US college campuses and fraternities, to name just a few.

Another sociological influence is society's social sanctions, and the severity of those sanctions. This can include both formal and informal sanctions. Formal sanctions are usually codified laws. For instance, what are the legal sanctions for alcohol or drug use in your country? As of 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drug use while Singapore punishes drug users more severely than the United States. Informal sanctions are more social in nature. If you get drunk, do people shun you the next day? Or, do they laugh with you about it?