The United Nations and the World Health Organization have agreed that certain life skills are vital to prevent the loss of productive citizens to drugs, crime and violence. Anyone trying to help the addicted recover a lasting sobriety can easily see the way extended addiction destroys these same skills. If we only provide medication-assisted treatment to a person seeking to reclaim sobriety and we don’t ensure they get the help they need to rebuild these life skills, are we selling them short?

UN and WHO logos

A couple of decades ago, the World Health Organization and the United Nations convened an inter-agency meeting to learn about each other’s interests and objectives related to life skills education. At the end of this collaboration, they published their conclusions in a 17-page report that provides insight for anyone working with the addicted to help them reclaim their lives. 

The members of these two agencies agreed that the development of skills in five basic areas were essential for the prevention of the worst of life’s problems. These five areas were:

  • Decision-making and problem-solving
  • Creative thinking and critical thinking
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Self-awareness and empathy
  • Coping with emotions and coping with stress

Anyone who has worked with those in recovery after a terrible and destructive stretch of drug use knows that these exact skills are utterly lost during addiction. 

For example:

  • A person driven by relentless cravings can’t make the decision to stop using even though their drug use is destroying their family and their own life. 
  • Critical thinking means using a rational approach to addressing life situations, a skill lost when a person feels driven to steal from family and friends to maintain an addiction.
  • Many people who are deeply addicted are simply unable to tell the truth in their communications if it means they will not be able to get the drugs they feel they need so desperately. 
  • Empathy necessarily takes a back seat to self-preservation, as spouses and children of an addicted person quickly learn.
  • Because of an inability to cope with emotions or stress, many people trying to stay sober relapse. 

As noted in the report published by this group, many programs around the world focus on these life skills specifically as a way to prevent child abuse, drug abuse, school dropouts and teen pregnancies. Zimbabwe, Thailand, Mexico, the UK, South Africa and Colombia are noted as locales in which this education is utilized to lift up a population that might otherwise be lost to productive society. 

The Devastation Wrought by Addiction

Those who lose the battle with drugs or alcohol also lose these skills. Unfortunately for many addicted people, they may stay addicted for years or even decades before they get the support they need to recover. In that time, the harm they have done to themselves and those close to them is mountainous. These individuals are buried under a vast burden of guilt. The only way they can survive is to block it out for the moment. This guilt prevents many people from accepting an offer of any kind of help, including rehab. The guilt, the effort to block the harm they’ve done—these life skills are buried at the bottom of this mountain. 

When families manage to break through that roadblock, they can get a loved one to accept the help of a rehab program. But then what? These life skills must be rebuilt. For a person to leave an addicted mindset and lifestyle behind, they will have to regain these skills. 

These are the skills that make life worth living because it is with these skills we maintain our familial, community and professional ties. And, importantly, these are the skills any recovering person relies on to maintain a sober life after rehab. 

Is MAT Being Used as a Substitute for Life Skills?

But what of the person who only goes to a short-term detox? Or whose only treatment is a prescription for a medication-assisted treatment drug? The alcoholic may be given Antabuse, the opioid addict gets a prescription for Suboxone. Either one of these people may be given injections of naltrexone with the hope that it blocks the effects of the drugs they want to take.

Empathy and communication.

Regaining empathy requires relearning life skills. Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

How many of these individuals have access to a well-rounded rehab program that provides training to restore these life skills?

To give a person in recovery a fair chance at maintaining sobriety, these are the life skills they must regain. In some cases, MAT may help a person to stabilize their life and get off illegal drugs in the short term, and that can be a positive move. When a person in recovery rebuilds these skills, that’s when their life comes under their control once again. MAT alone does not offer this level of rehabilitation, a fact that should inform all policy and treatment decisions.