The Great Debate: Is Addiction a Disease?
It goes unsaid that addiction is a major public health concern in current times, but what may be up for debate is whether or not addiction is a disease. Treatment advocates often argue that addiction is a legitimate medical condition, whereas those on the opposing side may argue that addiction is not a disease but a moral failing. Let’s explore both sides below.
Opposing Sides of the Debate
On the one hand, many people in the medical community view addiction as a disease. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is a chronic health problem, classified as a mental illness and a brain disorder. NIDA further explains that addiction is a medical illness that leads to compulsive drug-seeking and changes areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, judgment, decision making, and behavioral control. As such, addiction is a disease, as it causes lasting changes in the brain and leads to problems with functioning.
On the other hand, some people still believe that since a person can choose whether or not to use drugs, addiction is not a disease but instead constitutes a moral failing because drug use is ultimately a personal choice. People who hold this view of addiction may argue that addicts are dangerous and worthy of blame for their struggles.
Research has shown that the public tends to be divided on whether to view addiction as a disease or a moral failing, and people are likely to view addiction more negatively than other mental health conditions, such as depression. Despite the fact that addiction is treatable, a significant number of people still perceive that addicts are weak, especially when considering the fact that drug use is illegal.
How does the debate affect treatment?
When addiction is treated as a disease, people who are living with addictions have the option to get treatment. Just as you would treat a medical condition like diabetes with medication and visits to the doctor, when addiction is seen as a disease, it is viewed as worthy of treatment from a professional rather than something that requires punishment or social ostracization.
Another effect that the view of addiction as a disease has on treatment is that it makes addiction more likely to be seen as a chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment. For instance, some people may feel that relapsing means that treatment has failed and that they are destined to suffer from addiction forever. On the other hand, the disease model of addiction reminds us that relapse is normal and indicates that a different treatment approach is warranted or that it is time to intensify treatment. As NIDA explains, the relapse rate for addictions is similar to that seen with other medical conditions, including asthma and high blood pressure. Just as you might change your medication if you have a relapse of high blood pressure, you might alter your treatment regimen for addiction if you return to using drugs for a period of time.
Unfortunately, the view of addiction as a moral failure or not as a disease can have harmful consequences for those seeking treatment. One study found that rejecting the disease model of addiction leads to more negative attitudes toward those with addictions, which could have a detrimental effect on treatment. In fact, research suggests that stigma is a barrier against seeking treatment, especially among women. This means that if a person with an addiction believes that others perceive them negatively, they may be fearful of seeking treatment.
In addition, members of the public, who are likely to view addiction as a moral failing, are less likely to support policies that help drug addicts with recovery. For example, nearly half of people in a survey indicated that they did not feel that individuals with addictions should have the same health insurance benefits as the general public. It is clear that negative attitudes toward addiction, such as the view that addicts are morally weak, can harm treatment outcomes.
What does the surgeon general think?
In 2016, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a report acknowledging that addiction is a legitimate medical condition that deserves treatment. The surgeon general indicated that America needs to change the way it discusses addiction and make an effort to promote treatment and recovery, naming addiction one of the top public health concerns that face the nation. He also demonstrated support for the disease model of addiction, explaining that repeated drug misuse changes the circuits within the brain.
How Treatment Helps
Since addiction is generally regarded as a disease, overcoming an addiction typically requires treatment. In addiction treatment, individuals often participate in a combination of group and individual counseling, and they may also take medications. The brain changes with addiction, leading to compulsive drug use, but through counseling, individuals in recovery can learn strategies for resisting urges to use drugs and develop new ways of coping with stress.
NIDA provides encouraging reports about addiction treatment, stating that addiction can be successfully treated and managed. In many cases, a combination of therapy and medication is the most effective approach, but treatment should be tailored to meet each individual’s unique needs and situation. It is also important to keep in mind that when individuals seek treatment for an addiction, they are often diagnosed with a substance use disorder, which is the clinical term for an addiction. A substance use disorder comes with a set of diagnostic criteria or symptoms, adding additional support for the view that addiction is a disease requiring treatment.
Ethos Recovery has helped many people overcome their addictions. Reach out and give us a call today to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one.
Author – Chris Howard
Chris Howard is the Founder and Director of Ethos Recovery. He has a B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and has served as a community advocate/mentor for men and women in recovery since 2010.