Health Experts Say Addiction is a Disease, Should Be Treated as Such

Addiction is a disease, according to experts, and it should be treated as such for the best possible outcomes.

Historically, addiction has been attributed to character flaws, immorality, or personality disorders. Long before the disease theory of addiction was adopted after the end of World War II, drinking alcohol was socially acceptable, but being drunk wasn’t. Rather, drunkenness was a sign that an individual was capable of engaging in criminal or deviant behaviors. People who were addicted were regarded as immoral or fatally flawed. Nowadays, medical experts across the board agree that addiction is a disease and should be treated as such, and the most successful types of treatment for addiction operate on this basis.

What Does it Mean That Addiction is a Disease?

What, exactly, constitutes a disease is still a matter of debate among medical professionals, but in general, a disease is defined as a condition that impairs normal human functioning and has distinguishing signs and symptoms. A disease involves an incorrectly functioning organ, structure, or bodily system resulting from genetics, infection, developmental problems, environmental factors, nutritional deficiencies, or other causes. In general, a disease has a range of underlying factors, and it produces characteristic symptoms that are diagnosable and treatable.

Under this definition, it’s clear that addiction is a disease of the brain. It involves improper brain function caused by chronic drug or alcohol abuse. The development of an addiction involves genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Addiction produces diagnosable symptoms, and it can be successfully and systematically treated.

Addiction is a disease that’s characterized by changes in the brain’s physical structures and chemical functions that affect thought and behavior patterns and lead to compulsive drug or alcohol use despite the negative consequences it causes in your life. It’s a chronic disease, which means that while it can be sent into remission, it can recur if someone in recovery uses again. A recurrence of the addiction is characterized once again by compulsive drug use caused by changes in the brain.

The Case for Treating Addiction as a Disease

From 12-step programs to 90-day inpatient treatment programs, most types of treatment for addiction acknowledge that addiction is a complex disease caused by any number of underlying factors.

CBS News reports that Tom McLellan, the Obama Administration’s former deputy drug czar and founder of the Treatment Research Insititute, and Gary Mendell, founder and CEO of the national nonprofit Shatterproof, which is dedicated to helping families recover from addiction, released a set of eight principles for treating substance abuse. Called the “National Principles of Care,” these include universal addiction screening, personalized diagnosis, and rapid access to care.

McLellan stresses that addiction is similar to other chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which are, like addiction, caused by a range of factors, including lifestyle choices, genetics, and biological functions. But, he says of the addicted, “some 25 million people in this country are looked at like the bad person, the bad kid, and that obviously makes it much worse.”

According to McLellan and hundreds of other medical professionals and addiction experts who reviewed the National Principles of Care, the Principles “call for a recognition of the new science that this is a brain disease that manifests in terrible behavioral problems.” While most substance abuse treatment models recognize addiction as a disease and offer treatments that include medications, behavioral therapy, and ongoing recovery support, many individuals and entities resist the idea that addiction is a disease.

What the Detractors Say

Some folks don’t believe that addiction is a disease, and they believe that calling it a disease relieves the affected individual from personal responsibility. But nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s true that an addicted person chose to abuse drugs or alcohol in order to become addicted, just as many people with heart disease or diabetes chose to engage in dangerous eating habits and other unhealthy lifestyle choices that led to those diseases. But recovery from any of these diseases requires taking personal responsibility for making important lifestyle changes that can send the disease into remission.

Treating addiction as the disease it is helps to remove the stigma of addiction. Addiction requires medical treatment to overcome, but as McLellan notes, we’ve “created a system of 15,000 addiction programs, separated from the rest of medicine: Financially, geographically, and culturally. It was never part of health care because it was never thought to be part of health care.” McLellan points out that he doesn’t fault anyone for that, because the science wasn’t there. “Well, now it is,” he says.

Just like diabetes and heart disease, once an addiction develops, McLellan says, “you need enduring, continuing, individualized care and monitoring. Recovery is an expected result.” Most  high quality substance abuse treatment models operate on this principle, and all five federal agencies tasked with addressing the current drug crisis agree. Now, McLellan and Mendell hope that the current administration will also embrace this truth and develop a tactical plan for addressing the crisis with these important facts in mind, guided by their National Principles of Care. Anything less, they say, and the crisis is only bound to get worse.

If you or a loved one needs help with abuse and/or treatment, please call the WhiteSands Treatment at (877) 855-3470. Our addiction specialists can assess your recovery needs and help you get the addiction treatment that provides the best chance for your long-term recovery.

About the Author

is a proud alumni member of WhiteSands Treatment. After living a life of chaos, destruction and constant let downs, Mark was able to make a complete turnaround that sparked a new way of life. He is serious about his recovery along with helping others. At WhiteSands Treatment, we offer support to you in your homes or when you are out living in your daily lives.