Imagine telling adolescents, “You don’t have to say you’re going to quit using drugs” and then dealing with their parents and community. Imagine encouraging young clients to talk about what they like about drugs instead of focusing on the harm drugs can cause. Counter-intuitive and certainly non-traditional, these approaches are part of the Seven Challenges counseling program developed in 1991 by Tucsonan Robert Schwebel, Ph.D., that has offered a radical change in the world of drug treatment, first for adolescents and now for adults.
His program is used in hundreds of residential, intensive outpatient, school, and other settings across the country, including “Pathways of Arizona,” a behavioral health services provider with locations in Tucson.
“You can’t shout out ideas like these that are so counter to mainstream thinking,” Schwebel says. “They are fundamentally different from the judgmental, disempowering, controlling, and narrow-minded approaches that have completely dominated the field.” He says you have to explain them person-to-person, “but they make so much sense that people eventually agree.”
Schwebel takes the same approach in “Leap of Power: Take Control of Alcohol, Drugs, and Your Life” (Viva Press, 2019), his new self-help book that provides specific guidance and practical strategies — information formerly available only in counseling — for anyone concerned about their use of alcohol or other drugs.
“On a personal level, I feel that my Jewish background influences a big part of what motivates me in my work, in particular, the idea that you can be successful, but — and it’s important but — you must make a contribution to the world,” Schwebel told the AJP. “Also, I follow the Jewish tradition of activism to promote social justice. My focus on drugs is in part because there’s a significant stigma, misunderstanding, and prejudice toward people with drug problems.
“It’s important we recognize that Jewish people are afflicted by drug problems, including the opioid epidemic that is not only affecting poor neighborhoods but also middle-class suburban families,” he adds, noting that there has been a particularly serious problem among adolescent and young adults in Orthodox Jewish families.
“Like other groups, the Jewish community has been reluctant to acknowledge problems. ‘Leap of Power’ is very deliberately written to reduce stigma and empower people to confront drug problems, bring them into the open, talk about them without shame, and take action to overcome them,” he says.
Most often, people do not go for drug treatment until they are desperate. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 97% of those with diagnosable drug problems do not perceive a need for treatment.
People may be reluctant to seek treatment because they expect judgment and criticism. Schwebel says we need to stop telling people what to do about drugs and start supporting them and helping them make their own informed decisions. Instead of accepting the dogma that there is only one solution, immediate abstinence, Schwebel seeks to empower readers to take control of their own lives: to become aware of all their options and make their own decisions about if, when, and how to change their drug use behavior. “You can modify your plans as you go along until you figure out what works for you,” he says.
Schwebel disagrees with the popular notion that people have an incurable disease and are powerless over drugs. He tells readers that even if they have been told they are powerless, and even if they feel powerless, they absolutely are not. For those who say they can’t stop once they start, he says you can decide not to start.
The book leads readers through a systematic process that helps them think about what they like about drugs — what needs they are satisfying or attempting to satisfy. Once people know what they are seeking through drugs, they have the option of finding other ways to deal with life, he says.
Early in his career, Schwebel operated free drop-in centers in Berkeley and San Francisco, California. He moved to Tucson in 1981 to direct a community-based drug treatment agency. Until recently, he also maintained a private practice. For nine years, he wrote a weekly psychology column for the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star. He hosted a series of monthly television specials called “Good Loving” for KVOA Channel 4. He appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Today Show,” “The CBS Early Show,” CNN interviews, and has provided interviews for local media across the country. For several years he served as resident psychologist answering questions on “Ask the Family Psychologist” at ivillage.com. He has been the subject of articles in national print media including Newsweek, USA Weekend, Parents Magazine, Redbook, and U.S. News and World Report. He is the author of five other books, including “Saying No Is Not Enough,” and numerous professional publications.
Over the years, Schwebel has been involved in community issues, serving first on the Tucson Council and then on the Governor’s Council for Children Youth and Families in Arizona. On the national level, he was the author of a monograph “Helping Your Children Navigate Their Teenage Years: A Guide for Parents” for the White House Council on Youth Violence. His work extended across the border to Mexico when he was appointed and served for many years on the public health committee of the Arizona-Sonora Commission.
Currently, he develops materials for The Seven Challenges program and remains active in program oversight and clinical direction. He also promotes drug policy reform. His wife, Claudia, has been a close companion in all of this work.