Bestselling author Johann Hari last visited Vancouver in 2012, when he was researching his excellent book on addiction and prohibition, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.
The U.K. journalist spent considerable time in the Downtown Eastside and eventually devoted more than 50 pages of that book to harm reduction in Vancouver.
He returns to B.C. next week for two events on November 20 and 21. In a telephone interview, Hari described his upcoming visit as something akin to a homecoming.
“People in Vancouver, I think are often ashamed of the Downtown Eastside,” he told the Straight from New Orleans. “I think people in Vancouver should be incredibly proud of the Downtown Eastside.
“In the long arc of our understanding of addiction, and in the movement from shame and stigma towards love and compassion, the Downtown Eastside will play an absolutely central part in that story and that understanding,” Hari explained.
He pointed to the nonprofit Portland Hotel Society (PHS) as an example, and the refusal of its founder, Liz Evans, to evict tenants who struggled with an addiction or a disruptive mental-health issue. (The idea, today known as “housing first”, is that if you guarantee someone a home and basic supports, it creates the stability and time they require to begin addressing more complicated problems of addiction and mental illness.)
“The PHS pioneered this model of unconditional housing for people with addiction problems,” Hari said. “No one in the world had ever done that before.”
He similarly pointed to the work of SFU professor Bruce Alexander, whose research changed how we understand environmental factors to affect an individual’s susceptibility to addiction.
“Housing is a key part of our environment,” Hari said. “It is a key part of who we are. Where we live. Once you understand that, it’s perfectly obvious that you can’t solve addictions crises without solving housing crises.”
Vancouver has changed since Hari last visited. Skyrocketing housing prices have made the city unaffordable for many, and the arrival of the synthetic opioid fentanyl has driven overdose deaths to unprecedented numbers. It’s all related, Hari said, noting these themes appear in the speeches he’s planned for both Vancouver events.
“It’s only surprising that you’d be speaking about addiction at a housing conference [the first of his two engagements] if we continue with a misconception about addiction that’s been running for a long time in our culture,” he said.
That’s a reference to Chasing the Scream, which argues, convincingly, that it’s not drugs themselves that cause most addictions.
“When someone is choosing an extremely powerful anesthetic [like heroin], that is because they are in an extreme amount of pain,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the deep, underlying causes of that pain.”
The years Hari spent investigating addiction for that book led directly to an unplanned follow up that Hari now has scheduled for release this January. It’s called Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions.
“Having done all this research and learned that addiction is not caused primarily by the drugs, but caused by this deep sense of pain that people are trying to treat, then the immediate question was, what is driving this pain?” Hari said. “It left me asking, why do so many people in our culture feel disconnected?”
Hari recounted how his obsessions with those questions consumed the last three years of his life and took him around the world.
“We all know that human beings have some basic physical needs,” he said. “We need shelter, we need food. There is equally good evidence that we all have innate psychological needs. We’ve gotten quite good at meeting people’s physical needs—not perfect but pretty good. But we’ve gotten increasingly bad at meeting our basic psychological needs: security, belonging, and identity.”
While Chasing the Scream dismantled widely accepted theories of addiction, Hari’s forthcoming book challenges basic ideas about mental health.
“So Lost Connections is the story of this very long journey that I went on, this three-year journey across the world, to try to understand, what is making us feel disconnected? And how do we reconnect?”
Johann Hari is scheduled to speak on November 20 at 8:30 a.m. as a keynote speaker at the BC Non-Profit Housing Association’s annual “Housing Central” conference ($400 for a day pass). He'll also appear on November 21 at 7 p.m. at St. Andrew's Wesley United Church (1022 Nelson Street) as part of the First United Church Community’s “Roddan Jubilee Lecture Series” (free but registration required).