Understanding Addiction as a Disease

addiction as a disease

Many people do not understand the complexities of addiction. They do not always understand why or how certain individuals become addicted to drugs. They do not always understand why users continue to abuse drugs, or why they cannot simply stop on their own. Some people see drug addiction as a lack of willpower or moral principles. Some people see addiction as a criminal justice issue.

In a recent NPR interview, A. Thomas McLellan, co-founder of the Treatment Research Institute and former deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, discussed how this view of addiction has progressively shaped drug treatment in America. McLellan reveals,

 "The people that I know who have lost spouses, children; some of them are so ashamed that they wouldn't even acknowledge [addiction] as a cause of death.”

There is no doubt that addiction carries a stigma, one that is rooted in how others perceive addiction, from the outside looking in: drug addicts lie, they hide things, they steal, they use illegal drugs despite the consequences. Many associate these addictive behaviors with crime.

If you have experienced drug addiction, whether through your loved ones or yourself, you likely understand that it is not a moral failing. Addiction is not a lack of principle or strength, and it does not always come with a simple solution. Addiction, much like diabetes or asthma, is a complex, chronic disease. It progresses with ongoing drug use, which, over time, causes lasting changes in the brain and disturbs one’s ability to resist drug cravings, despite the dangers.

“Emerging science shows this is a brain disease. It's got the same genetic transmutability as a lot of chronic illnesses. And the organ that it affects is the brain, and within the brain it is motivation, inhibition, cognition, all those things that produce the aberrant, unpleasant behaviors that are associated with addiction,” McLellan explains to NPR.

Today, we know more about how drugs work in our bodies, particularly in the brain, than ever before. We know that drugs interrupt the chemical interactions that happen within our brains. We know that drugs modify how we feel pleasure, how we make decisions, how we control behaviors. We know about the harmful impact of substance abuse on the adolescent brain. Because of these many advances, we also know that, like other chronic diseases, addiction can be treated successfully.

In order for addiction treatment to be successful, however, it must be approached as a chronic disease, with ongoing and active management and long-term treatment plans in place. An effective drug rehab program recognizes that:

Addiction is a complex, but treatable disease
Drug treatment is not one-size-fits-all; every situation is unique and treatment should be adjusted accordingly
Treatment plans should be reviewed and revised to fit the patient’s changing needs
Drug addiction should be consistently monitored for a prolonged period of time

Addiction is often a relapsing disorder that needs to be treated as one would treat diabetes, heart disease, or hypertension. It calls for long-term monitoring, therapy, and rehabilitation. That is why the National Institute defines clear key principles of addiction treatment, and recommends a minimum of 90 days of drug treatment in order to see success.

The problem today, McLellan acknowledges, is that many medical professionals are not equipped to take on drug addiction. Less than ten percent of American medical schools have courses in addiction science. There are many doctors, nurses, and pharmacists who have not been trained in behavior therapies and the long-term management of drug addiction. McLellan continues, “Yet it’s those same kind of services, medications, behavioral therapies, monitoring and management, they now do routinely for diabetes, hypertension, chronic pain.” Addiction, unfortunately, is left as its own, separate entity.

What if diabetes carried the same stigma as addiction? What if only a small fraction sought help for their disease? What if they refused to seek help because they were afraid of what others would think?

Each year, about 90 percent of people diagnosed with a substance use disorder do not seek professional help. 10 percent of these afflicted individuals do not seek help because they do not want to be judged for their disease. It’s time we finally reduce the stigma. It is time to see addiction as a treatable disease, and give it the attention, care, and support it deserves. It is time to help our loved ones find the help that they deserve.

For more information on where to seek proper drug treatment or for details on Turnbridge’s long-term drug treatment program, call us today at 877-581-1793.