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Does Recognizing Addiction as a Disease Make It Socially Acceptable?

Addiction and Social Acceptability

Many people do not understand why individuals become addicted to drugs or how drugs change the brain to foster compulsive drug abuse. That is one explanation for why society once viewed drug addiction as a character flaw and a sign of moral weakness — and a significant reason a certain level of stigmatization about addiction still lingers. Today, the recovery community views addiction according to the “disease model.” To learn more about the impact that recognizing addiction as a disease has on societal views, read on.

Stigmas Surrounding Addiction

It is often mistakenly assumed that drug abusers lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop using drugs simply by choosing to change their behavior. Other common misconceptions cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) about drug addiction and addicts included the following:

  • Addicts are bad, crazy, or stupid
  • Addiction is a willpower problem
  • Addicts refuse to take personal responsibility
  • Addicts should be punished – not treated – for using drugs
  • People addicted to one drug are addicted to all drugs
  • Addicts cannot be treated with medications
  • Addiction is not a true brain disease

Today, most people understand that even “good” people can become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Furthermore, the scientific community supports the belief that willpower alone cannot end substance abuse. Once viewed as reprobates, today addicted individuals are commonly seen as people with certain vulnerabilities. Several include the following:

  • Exposure to traumatic events and psychological conditions
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Co-dependence
  • Low self-esteem
  • History of physical or sexual abuse
  • Mental health issues

Although some stigma surrounding addiction and people who become trapped by drugs and alcohol still lingers, this more informed perspective largely prevails.

A New Perspective on Addiction: The Disease Model

One explanation for the shift in public perception about addiction is the classification of addiction as a disease. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Characteristics include the following:

  • Inability to consistently abstain from use
  • Impairment in behavioral control
  • Craving
  • Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Dysfunctional emotional response
  • Cycles of relapse and remission

Genetic factors account for roughly 50% of the likelihood that an individual will develop an addiction. Other variables include the following:

  • Environmental factors that interact with the person’s biology and affect the extent to which genetic factors exert their influence
  • Resiliencies the individual acquires through parenting or other life experiences that affect the extent to which genetic predispositions lead to the behavioral and other manifestations of addiction.
  • Cultural factors that influence how addiction becomes actualized in persons with biological vulnerabilities

Other factors that can contribute to the emergence of an addiction include the following:

  • The presence of an underlying biological deficit in the function of reward circuits, such that drugs and behaviors which enhance reward function are preferred and sought as reinforcers
  • Repeated engagement in drug use or other addictive behaviors that cause brain changes leading to impaired control over further drug use or destructive behaviors
  • Cognitive and affective distortions which impair perceptions and compromise the ability to deal with feelings
  • Disruption of healthy social supports
  • Problems in interpersonal relationships which impact the development or impact of resiliencies
  • Exposure to trauma or stressors that overwhelm an individual’s coping abilities
  • Distortion in meaning, purpose, and values that guide attitudes, thinking, and behavior
  • Distortions in a person’s connection with self, with others and with the transcendent (referred to as God by many, the Higher Power by 12-steps groups)
  • The presence of co-occurring psychiatric disorders

Unfortunately, as reported by CNN, fewer than 10% of addicted individuals recognize that they have a problem and seek help. In many cases, friends and family members must assume responsibility for encouraging help-seeking behaviors; expecting the person with a diseased brain to accept the unacceptable is usually unrealistic. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Although people often underestimate the complexity of drug addiction, through scientific advances much has been learned about how to successfully treat substance disorders. With the right support and professional oversight, many individuals stop using drugs and resume productive, meaningful lives.

Recovery from Addiction

If you or someone you love struggles with abuse, help is available. Admissions coordinators at our toll free, 24-hour support line can guide you to wellness. Don’t go it alone when help is just one phone call away. You never have to go back to a life of addiction. Start your recovery now.