Why the world is honoring pioneering psychiatrist Herbert Kleber

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Alan Cleaver | FlickrPsychiatrist Herbert Kleber, who changed the way we look at addiction, is honored surrounding the 23rd anniversary of his induction to the National Academy of Medicine.

Jenna Jarrah

This week Google honored Dr. Herbert Kleber, the American psychiatrist who pioneered substance abuse research. 

On Oct. 1, the search engine dedicated its doodle to the accomplished researcher marking the 23rd anniversary of his election to the National Academy of Medicine, a nonprofit organization that offers advice on physical and mental health. 

When Kleber began his career more than 50 years ago, he did not want to work in the field of drug abuse and treat addicts. There was little known about substance abuse as it was not a major area of research. 

After completing his medical degree and graduating from Yale in 1964, he was assigned and deployed to start working at the National Prison Hospital in Kentucky, where thousands of drug users were incarcerated.

 His research began soon after working here. Inmates were addicted to drugs like opiates, narcotics, psychedelics and alcohol.

Keep in mind the time period in which Kleber lived. Woodstock, the notorious rock music festival which is remembered for centering on hippie culture and heavy drug use of opiates and especially psychedelics, occurred only five years after Kleber obtained his degree in 1969. 

Overall, the 1960s and ‘70s were decades centered on liberalism which included protests, rights movements, hippies and the things that came with that culture.

Hippies tended to mainly be composed of the younger generation while the older generation was more conservative and religious. Older people tend to be more involved in politics, so naturally those ideals would be what governed the country. Since there was little understanding regarding substance abuse along with a strict and religious societal standard, many institutions like the Prison Hospital inmates were forced into “work therapy,” where they would take up jobs in the yard, kitchen, laundry room or wood shop. Few had group therapy and virtually no inmate had individual therapy. 

Kleber observed that nine out of ten patients would relapse within three months of their release, which caused the psychiatrist to develop his “evidence-based treatment.”

It was here where Kleber learned that the methods being used at that time were ineffective, and new approaches to treatment were needed. 

Kleber led the way in experimenting with new methods including group therapy and methadone, a drug used to regulate withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts. 

His work changed the way we look at addiction as he stressed the importance of treating it as a medical condition and not as a failure of moral character. Instead of focusing on punishments and the “sins” of the addict, Kleber employed medication and therapy to prevent future relapses.

During his fifty-year career, Kleber wrote more than 250 reports on addiction while also conducting research at Yale and then later, Columbia. He founded a drug dependency unit at Yale University where he remained the head for twenty years. At Columbia, he co-founded the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

This dedication comes as we approach the first anniversary of his death. Kleber died from a heart attack on Oct. 5, 2018 at 84-years-old.