I recently saw an article on The Odyssey Online titled “Stop Calling Your Drug Addiction a Disease”. The author voiced an opinion that addiction is not a disease, but illnesses like cancer and cystic fibrosis are. She cited “choice” as the defining factor that prohibits addiction from being considered a disease, stating that people with addiction “bring it upon themselves”.
My first reaction was to feel infuriated. As a counselor who works primarily with people with addictions, I am frustrated by the lack of knowledge the public has about addiction and how this lack of knowledge drives the stigmatization that contributes to keeping people with substance use disorders sick.
Defining Drug Addiction
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the definition of drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Addiction is referred to as Substance Use Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition, which provides criteria and classification of mental health disorders. Insurance companies recognize addiction as a disease and pay for its treatment. Treatment centers are staffed with doctors, nurses, and counselors like how a hospital is staffed. The treatment of substance use disorders includes empirically based therapy techniques and often medication. Within the medical community, addiction is a disease.
Dissonance of Addiction in Society
Despite the medical community accepting the disease model of addiction, many people in the general population do not. Many still adhere to the moral model of addiction, which states that people with addiction issues have a moral weakness or character defect. It denies that addiction has any of the research proven biological or genetic components. The moral model perpetuates stigma against addicts as it states that addicts are at fault for their addiction.
The Comparison of Illness and Addiction
Why is it so hard for many to understand the medical model of addiction? Personally, I think many view addicts as people without morals who do what feels good. This is counter to my experience. Many who struggle with addiction felt good the first few times they were high, but the feeling dissipates when addiction takes over your life. Yes, addicts are responsible for playing a part in their recovery, but placing all the blame on them does not help.
Just because someone has a disease that they did not cause does not mean they are not responsible for getting better. The author said that there was no correlation between addiction and cancer. But I concur, someone who has cancer makes the same choice to seek chemotherapy or radiation as an addict seeks counseling or rehab.
The truth is, when you compare addiction to any disease there are a lot more similarities than differences. There is so much more information out there about the disease of addiction. Fighting the stigma against addiction is important. It not only helps normalize the seeking of treatment but it opens the road to prevention.