Substance Abuse Treatment Italian Style

The San Patrignano community in Rimini, Italy. Photo credit:
The San Patrignano community in Rimini, Italy. Photo credit:

What if you had to live immersed full-time in the lives of people recovering from alcohol and drug addictions? Danielle Rich, MSW ’14, and Jennifer Glass, MSW ’15, accepted this challenge when they travelled with a group of other NYU Silver students to Rimini, Italy this summer.

Under the guidance of substance abuse experts Professor Lala Straussner (Silver) and Retired Professor Shlomo Einstein (Hebrew University), the course, “International Perspectives on Substance Use Problems and Treatment Models: An Italian Approach,” brought students to San Patrignano (“SanPa”), a renowned therapeutic community.

Silver students spent 10 days living, eating and working among residents. (Students slept in small cottages reserved just for them, however.) Students abided by all the rules that applied to residents, including 
set meal times and walking the grounds in groups of no fewer than 3 or 4 people. Residents are never allowed to be alone, even in lavatories. True to Italian culture, Rich says, the menus are dominated by pasta, and a small glass of wine is served at lunch and dinner. Residents with alcohol issues may refrain from drinking, however.

Students were expected to work in one of SanPa’s 52 vocational training areas, such as laundry, vineyards, graphic design, and wine- and cheese-making. SanPa sells its high-quality products outside the community; the income plus donations enable residents to live and receive treatment free of charge.

Students attended class in the mornings with Professors Straussner and Einstein. SanPa staff also lectured students on its approach. The average length of stay is 3-4 years, Glass says, compared with the 28-day model that is standard in the United States. It is estimated that much of the success of SanPa’s treatment is due to the combination of peer support, involvement in training programs, and allowing the time and space to work on recovery without feeling rushed or being discharged prematurely.

The peer-support model relies heavily on “responsibles,” longer-term residents who provide guidance and encouragement to newer ones. Glass and Rich say that they and several of the students in their group developed close connections with some of these very warm, open people who assisted them during their stay.

Glass says that the trip was not the typical study abroad experience — the immersion with residents was challenging and intense. Rich said that at first she was uncomfortable with the constant presence of other people; but later on, when she left the premises for a day, she felt very lonely, an unfamiliar emotion for her. Both students learned how powerful people are to each other; the strength transmitted through individuals with similar struggles is an amazing testament to the human spirit.

"It was a unique and inspiring experience; I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn in such an environment with Professors Straussner and Einstein,” Glass says. “Any student interested in working in the area of addictions should jump at the chance to participate in this course; I would do it again in a heartbeat."