Rabbi Eitan Eckstein is the founder in 1990 of Retorno, a nonprofit that specializes in the prevention and treatment of addiction. Based in Israel with branches in Latin America, it has an inpatient treatment center for 120 14- to18-year-olds and adults. Its program for prevention annually provides services to 24,000 teachers, students, soldiers and educators from Israel and abroad.
Rabbi Eckstein, 53 and the father of five, visited here recently to encourage rabbis, educators and community leaders to travel to Israel to learn his addiction prevention program so they can teach it here. A graduate of Bar-Ilan University’s School of Social Work, he is also considering opening treatment centers in the United States.
Jewish Week: There are a reported 25 million alcoholics in the United States. How many are Jewish?
Rabbi Eckstein: I don’t think anybody has any clear statistics. Working with an Israeli university, we found that 3,000 Jews go to rehab each year in the United States. According to our experience, if 3,000 are going to rehab centers, that is a very minor percentage. Less than 10 percent who really need help go to rehab centers and many others get individual help — they either recognize it or are pushed by their family.
What precisely do we mean when we say someone is addicted?
It means he has found a solution for the emotional pain he has. And when he finds a solution, he is the last to ask for help because has already found his help.
I understand there is now a new form of addiction that you are very concerned about.
Yes, it’s Internet addition — Internet games. We are now treating three to four clients who were sitting 17 hours every day playing those games. Kids statistically sit an average of six hours a day in front of the computer playing games and being in touch through Facebook and Twitter, and this can become a major addition. In the next few years it will be the number one addiction all over the world.
How long has this been going on?
It just started in the last two or three years. Parents think a computer is something intelligent and if their kids are sitting in front of a computer it is not as bad as sitting in the streets and drinking alcohol, but they don’t understand that addiction is addiction — it does not matter the cause. Addiction is the way one escapes reality. It doesn’t matter if one escapes through heroin or eating disorders; it is the same problem.
How can you tell if someone is addicted?
The manifestation of the problem is craziness. I can tell you that the kids we treat with addiction to computer games react worse than those addicted to heroin. After a week or two, when heroin addicts get far from the substance, they are not as violent. But one kid, after three months of not playing computer games, tried one night to break into our offices to play his game.
To what lengths will youngsters go to play their computer games?
We treated a 17-year-old kid who was playing an international game with friends all over the world. He put diapers on himself so he did have to waste a minute going to the bathroom. This is the craziness I’m talking about.
This kid sounds mentally ill.
Addiction is a disease resulting from a chemical imbalance and requires professional help. Dopamine in the brain helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When there is an imbalance, the reaction is the same — whether it is a game or sex or heroin addiction.
We are now working with Bar Ilan University to develop a medication that will help our brain get the Dopamine it needs. The drug is called DHEA and some people now take it as an anti-aging medication. Human trials started six months ago and it will take two years to see if it could help addiction.
How do you prevent game addiction as opposed to drug addiction?
Trying to prevent the use of drugs is easy because you to go to the kids and say drugs are illegal and kids listen. But when you try to prevent kids from eating junk food or using a computer with their friends, it looks so normal. So you tell them to eat to live and not to live to eat. And parents need to impose limits. You can’t start when a kid is 17, but you can when he is 8, 9 or10. This is the age where kids are starting with a computer and are finding a nice beautiful world of communication. We as parents have to put limits on their eating and on their computer use.
What else can parents do?
We have to be examples to our kids. If our kids see their fathers and mothers with their hands all the time on cell phones sending and receiving messages, they will think this is the way of the world. But if they see their fathers come home and not bother with phone calls and emails but have the time to sit and eat, they will see that their fathers don’t have to be stuck to the computer 24-hours a day.
If there were one message you could give to youngsters, what would it be?
If you want to talk with someone, the best thing to do is talk to him; don’t send text messages or e-mails.