Treating Addiction as a Disease

For many years, addiction was seen as a moral failing. Addicts were too often dismissed by society as demonstrating weakness or foolishness—as if they were losing in a battle of willpower. But as we learn more about substance use disorders, research suggests that addiction is much more complex than its historical perception. With a renewed spotlight on mental health issues, how should we view addiction today? Consider the following aspects of addiction as a mental illness.

Removing the Stigma
When addiction is treated as a character flaw or an irresponsible pattern of shortcomings, that perspective too quickly simplifies and summarizes what is happening in an addict’s mind. This angle also makes the assumption that every person is wired the same, ignoring that some people have a higher predisposition for developing an addiction. By taking on this lens that addiction is a moral issue rather than a health issue, we end up shaming an addict for exhibiting a lack of self-control, claiming their addiction is “their fault.”

When we shame someone who is showing signs of an addiction, that person won’t get the treatment or services they need. Instead, the individual is made to feel embarrassed or guilty, likely prompting them to continue hiding behind the substances that are fueling the problem.

When someone doesn’t get treatment, their situation can be viewed the same as someone struggling with any other illness who never gets medical attention or support. An addict who doesn’t get support is still sick. Leaving the sickness untreated allows further destruction to the mind and body, perpetuating a miserable cycle of excruciating symptoms and misunderstanding.

Understanding the Disease
Today, the medical community supports that addiction is a chronic disease, characterized by dysfunction in the brain’s reward circuit. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is experienced through the following aspects:
• Inability to consistently abstain
• Impairment in behavioral control
• Craving or increased hunger for drugs or rewarding experiences
• Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships
• Dysfunctional emotional response

Along with connecting people to research and resources, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration examines how addiction is misinterpreted in our culture. With nearly any other disease, people who are in recovery are treated with concern and compassion. Addiction is perhaps the only disease in which a person is judged and socially punished for relapsing. If an addict enters the emergency room from overdosing, that patient may be given what they need to be revived from the overdose, but they are typically discharged without follow-up care, referrals, or a long-term treatment plan. The double standard in how addiction is viewed reveals the progress still to come in how we look at overall mental health.

Pursuing Treatment
When people enter addiction treatment, we educate them on addiction as a disease, teaching them ways to cope with their illness and live a fuller, healthier life. By understanding addiction as a life-long condition, addicts can make strides in recognizing relapse triggers, coping with cravings, managing their environments, implementing healthier practices, and connecting with others in the same position.

As a disease, addiction is treatable. While addiction treatment programs help addicts make critical progress on the road to recovery, exiting a treatment program doesn’t mean the addict is out of the woods. Addiction is a life-long condition, and treatment should be ongoing and adjusted to meet the individual’s needs. By staying connected to support groups, counseling, and/or therapy services, the addict can become more and more effective at managing their disease.

Why do some people become addicts while others do not? Learn more about the causes behind addiction.