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Heroes Of The Opioid Crisis: “The obvious solution is to create environments of love” With Dr. Caroline Leaf and Marco Derhy

Love starts at home. It is so important for loved ones to constantly tell and show someone battling with addiction that they are loved.


If the lack of love is so dangerous, the obvious solution is to create environments of love. Yet what does this look like? Love starts at home. It is so important for loved ones to constantly tell and show someone battling with addiction that they are loved. Hug them, tell them they are needed and wanted, and tell them they are special. We also need to create a safe space for anyone suffering from an addiction and show them that they will not be judged or condemned.


I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Caroline Leaf. Dr. Leaf is a neuroscientist, mental health & mind expert, bestselling author, and speaker. Her technical expertise is as a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist with a Masters and PhD in Communication Pathology and a BSc Logopaedics, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. Her work goes beyond mindfulness and the ‘quick fixes’ of the current mental health system; since the early 1980s, she has researched the mind-brain connection, the nature of mental health, and the formation of memory. She was one of the first in her field to study how the brain can change (neuroplasticity) with directed mind input. During her years in clinical practice, she developed her theory (called the Geodesic Information Processing theory) of how we think, build memory and learn, into tools and processes that have transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), learning disabilities (ADD, ADHD), autism, dementias, and mental ill-health issues. She has helped thousands of individuals learn how to use their mind to detox and grow their brain to succeed in every area of their lives. Dr. Leaf teaches at academic, medical, and neuroscience conferences to various audiences around the world. She was selected as an advisor on a mental health initiative committee for the White House. She is the author of Think, Learn, Succeed, Switch On Your Brain, Think and Eat Yourself Smart, and The Perfect You, among many other books and journal articles. Her podcast, Dr. Caroline Leaf Podcast, is rated #63 on iTunes’ top Health podcasts.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?

30 years ago, I set out to answer a question that was considered at the time to be ridiculous: “can the mind change the brain?” In the 1980s it was believed that once you reached about 10 to 12 years old the brain did not change. Healthcare professionals were taught to help patients compensate brain disabilities, addiction and ill-health — total recovery was out of the question.

I took a different approach to the mind-brain question. After years of studying, a turning point in my research occurred. In my private practice, I encountered a 16-year old girl who had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result of an accident. This young lady had just come out of a two-week coma and was now operating on fourth grade level at school, instead of a 12th grade level like her peers. Using the five-step learning process I had developed, I worked with this young lady on a one-on-one basis. The 16-year-old girl was determined to catch up with her peer group, and I believed she could achieve her previous levels of academic performance again. In 8 months, the “‘miracle” happened: this young woman was able to graduate high school with her own class, and went on to university. In fact, as compared to before the accident, her IQ increased 20 points, and her overall academic performance improved (I documented this case in my postgraduate work). In addition, the young girl’s emotional, self-evaluative and self-monitoring skills improved, even though they were indirectly treated during the clinical sessions, indicating that mind change includes intellectual and emotional changes.

Over the years I have had the honor of working with the people of all ages and backgrounds in various clinical, educational and business environments around the world, and I am inspired by the wonderful people I get to spend time with. I am currently in the process of updating my research for publication because I believe that everyone deserves the best life possible, and if they understand how to use their minds, they can achieve success in every area of their lives because how we use our minds will determine how successful we will be.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid addiction?

First, let me qualify the word “addiction”. Addiction is not a bad word if used in the right context. It means that someone is consumed by something, and according to research, humans are wired for love and designed to be consumed by love. When something traumatic happens to us — whether it is a traumatic surgery requiring pain meds, or a traumatic incident that is extremely painful to process, this love design becomes distorted, causing a distorted addiction because of the damaging brain changes that result from the trauma or toxic experience. We can literally trick ourselves into thinking that we need that next fix because of the discomfort the toxic brain change causes, and the fix appears to temporarily quell this. I found in my work as a clinician for 25 years working with severe neurological issues and mind issues that toxic addiction is often a coping mechanism, but a very dissatisfactory one, because it never really satisfies what the person in question needs. The key that made the change in my patients was helping them become aware of the power in their mind to overcome toxic issues and to get to the root of these issues. Research shows that a high percentage of people with toxic addictions get out of the addictions through choice and social support. I found this to be the case consistently with my patients; there needs to be a willingness to choose to find the root of the issue and to choose to change, and a support base to help the person, in love, rediscover who they are.

Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?

I strongly believe it is a consequence of several overarching problems: When humans are treated as biological machines with replaceable parts, language like “once an addict, always an addict” is used, and the addiction is individualized and localized in a person’s brain as a disease, we dehumanize the individual in question and overlook the context and story of a person’s life — and if we tell someone this enough times they will begin to believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them, somewhat like a nocebo effect.

We should rather say “you are a brilliant human with an incredible mind that can think, feel and choose and who has experienced the sufferings and challenges of life — the human condition — and can overcome this with loving help — you can choose and you can get over this. I am here for you.” This kind of approach to any kind of addiction brings hope and purpose back into people’s lives rather than treating them as a broken body and locking them in with labels.

Moreover, relying on the current mental health and psychiatric system to stop the opioid epidemic is problematic. We desperately need a revolution in mental healthcare. The current drug-oriented, biomedical model of diagnosis and treatment for non-medical problems and experiences is reductionistic and dangerous — in many cases of opioid addiction, one drug is replaced with another! While the biomedical model is very effective in treating illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and so on, it is unhelpful and even damaging in matters to do with consciousness and the mind, such as addiction. The “treatment” of these so-called diseases is predominated by psychotropic drugs, ECT and TMS, which have been shown to be ineffective in the long term, destructive, disempowering, and stigmatizing. Calling for a bigger budget for drug-oriented psychiatry “medicalizes misery” and dehumanizes people, ignoring the context surrounding why a person chooses to act or speak in a certain way.

There is also extensive documentation demonstrating the “brain-disabling and mind-altering” effects of psychiatric medication, which disrupts the capacity of a person to function coherently. These medications do not “fix” the brain; they cause chemical imbalances in the brain. All psychotropic drugs can cause long term apathy, dementia and brain damage. In addition, the side effects of many of these drugs include increased aggression, agitation, suicidal thoughts and confused thinking. If anything, giving someone a mental health label and psychiatric drugs can exacerbate a problem, not control it, literally adding fuel to the fire.

Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?

We get thousands of emails sharing how people, as they get insight into the power they have in their mind to change the brain, realize that addictions are not their destiny and that they can change them. It is a message of hope: we are powerful enough to literally stand back, observe our own thinking and change it; and in doing so we actually change the structure of our brain and the way we live our lives.

Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?

A friend of mine’s cousin, who is a very successful and wealthy businessman, had to have major back surgery. He was given a very high dose of opioids per day for pain. Within a 6-month period he was nonfunctional, stopped working, didn’t leave the house, became overweight because of his addiction to his pain medications — his family was broken and his marriage was pretty much over. My friend gave him one of my books on the mind-brain connection, which had my 21-day brain detox in it. One day in desperation, when he was all alone — his family had left him this stage — he picked up my book and started reading and started doing the 21 day brain detox (a mind technique to detox thoughts). He soon realized he had to face the reason why he become addicted to opioids: he was totally burnt out from all the pressure of building his business but his pride kept him from admitting and dealing with it, and the opioids had provided a way to numb the pain. Once he found this root cause, he chose to change. His marriage and family and health was restored. He conquered the addiction through choice and the love of those around him.

Can you share something about your work makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

After I had completed my PhD examining the mind-brain connection, I worked with teachers and students in low income areas in South Africa. The individuals I worked came to school contending with poverty, abuse, hunger, drug addictions and social violence. Many students were orphaned by AIDS. These students, hungry to learn, worked hard and saw their grades improving with my Geodesic Learning Theory. The self-evaluative and executive skills, alongside the academic performance, improved among these students: the schools were transformed.

One high school student in particular, a 24-year-old pimp, drug addict, and dealer, came into my class, frightening the other children and glaring at me. Yet he sat there silently for several days, and at the end of the course he came up to me with tears in his eyes and said to me: “Dr. Leaf, now I know what to do with my pen.” He went on to overcome his addictions, graduate high school, and became a change agent in his community. He just needed something to live for, and he found that in himself when he recognized his own potential.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?

If the lack of love is so dangerous, the obvious solution is to create environments of love. Yet what does this look like? Love starts at home. It is so important for loved ones to constantly tell and show someone battling with addiction that they are loved. Hug them, tell them they are needed and wanted, and tell them they are special. We also need to create a safe space for anyone suffering from an addiction and show them that they will not be judged or condemned.

The next step is in school or at work: leaders should be trained to identify the signs and should provide adequate support for troubled individuals, such as providing each teacher or manager with a compassionate and knowledgeable individual who is there to help the person at risk.

Religious institutions and community centers can also be incredible powerhouses when it comes to showing communities what love looks like. In addition to regular counseling services, religious institutions oftentimes create a loving, safe and nonjudgmental center or peaceful garden manned by volunteers who just listen and love people who are going through tough times and dealing with addiction.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I would love to see stricter regulations for prescribing opioids and other psychoactive drugs, the use of alternatives to medication for handling pain and closer monitoring of the pharmaceutical industry’s relationship with doctors and medical centers.

I know that this is not easy work. What keep you going?

I have hope that people can change, because I have witnessed, time and again, the power of the mind. I have seen people overcome the worst kind of circumstances and addictions, and I believe that humanity is incredibly resilient. Hope: this is what keeps me moving forward.

Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?

Yes, as I mentioned before we human beings have incredible minds, which, when used well, can overcome anything that life throws at us. I have seen this time and time again in my research and practice, and I truly believe that the ability to choose is incredibly powerful and gives us hope for the future.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think leadership is the ability to use your mind well, to think clearly and deeply about every situation, to react with wisdom, to act in love, to recognize that everyone thinks differently and to be able to harness those differences to make this world a better place for everyone. I think my former president Nelson Mandela (who is a hero to many) was a true leader, as he exhibited many of these qualities and was able to unite South Africa during a difficult and turbulent period of our history.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. That rest is important! There is always so much work to do that it is often difficult to say no, but rest is so important for our mental wellbeing and ability to think clearly. I am working on this and learning to rest in my “busyness” by listening to my brain and body’s “I am tired” signals, as I tend to try do everything and squeeze too much into a day.
  2. That some people don’t want help. It is always hard to walk away, but there will always be some people who refuse help or do not want to change, and that sometimes you will have to walk away from these relationships. And…sometimes this “walking away” can be the motivation that someone to finally make the choice to change.
  3. That stress can be good for you. Stress can be good or bad for us, depending on how we perceive stressful situations. I have learnt to see stress as something that enhances my performance, getting my body ready for action, rather as something that drains me and makes me feel ill.
  4. That labels can lock people in. Labels have the power to hurt people because they often become part of a person’s identity, shaping the way they think, feel and act, which can be dangerous if they are toxic.
  5. See a failure as a result and opportunity to learn. I love Thomas Edison’s example of this: after 1000 plus attempts before he succeeded in inventing the light bulb, when asked about his failures, he declared, “I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!” Seeing a failure as a result is an amazingly empowering way of keeping up hope and persevering, and is now a life mantra for me.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to get people to recognize how incredible they are, and how they have powerful minds that can give so much to the world and that this power is released when we actually understand our wired for love identities — which is a big focus of what I teach people and what I did with my patients. Asking ourselves “what does love look like in my life?” — and applying this would result in becoming a positive change agent in our communities. People living in a love identity don’t have envy or jealousy and they don’t discriminate or see difference as a value judgment — they are inclusive.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can’t control the events and circumstances of life, but you can control your reactions.”

I constantly remind myself of this daily, because life can be hard, but it is so much harder if we are constantly tossed about in tough times. We have the power to overcome, and when we practice using this power, we can experience life to the fullest.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

There are some amazing scientists and scholars whose work I passionately follow, such as Dr. Peter Gotzche, Dr. Peter Breggin (who happens to be a good friend), and professor and philosopher Keith Ward, to name just a few — I would love to sit down with all of them and pick their incredible brains and learn how to better help people to deal with the mental challenges they face.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on Facebook (Dr. Caroline Leaf), YouTube (Dr. Caroline Leaf), Twitter (@drcarolineleaf) and Instagram (@drcarolineleaf).

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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