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The Disease Model of Addiction

There are many different substances to which people can become addicted. Some of them are ones that humanity has quite a long history with — like alcohol, opium, and marijuana — while others have more recently been developed and reached widespread use, including prescription painkillers and the numerous designer drugs that exist. With so many substances available, there should be little surprise that addiction has become such a major problem for the United States as well as the world at large.

It used to be that society viewed addicts as bad people. Rather than requiring medical treatment, the assumption was that people who developed addictions were morally bankrupt, lacking in a relationship with a higher power, and generally self-interested. As such, attitudes toward those who suffered from addictions were largely punitive, resulting in many of them being sent to prison or insane asylums. The idea was that incarceration would force them into sobriety while the fear of any further imprisonment would encourage them to remain abstinent after being released from prison.

Fortunately, that’s not the way it works today. Instead, we’ve come to see addiction as a disease, making it worthy of medical attention and care as diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. However, there are still many people who oppose the view of addiction as a disease, asserting that addiction is less a disease than it is the conscious choice to habitually abuse alcohol or drugs. For this reason, we’re going to discuss what it is about addiction that makes it a disease.

Morally Bankrupt: Public Perceptions of Addiction

As we explained above, previous years saw perceptions of addicts being extremely negative. Anyone who suffered from addiction was somehow a bad person who should be punished for their selfishness and refusal to exercise self-control. Over the years, we would come to gain a much more enlightened understanding of how addiction works; however, despite the more enlightened understanding we have about addiction, perceptions are still largely negative. There have been studies to show that people view addicts similarly to how they view the mentally ill, but more recent studies indicate lower regard for addicts than for the mentally ill.

There are a couple of important effects resulting from the stigma that society has attached to addiction, one of which is that the stigma discourages addicts from seeking treatment. Addicts who have tried to keep their addictions a secret from the people around them will often be extremely reluctant or resistant to the addiction recovery process because they don’t want to experience the discrimination and even harassment that often results from being an addict. Alternately, it has made society extremely reluctant to get behind any government initiatives that provide aid or assistance to anyone suffering from addiction. For this reason, it’s only relatively recently that substance abuse treatment was added to the essential health benefits of most insurance and government health plans.

What are the Potential Causes of Addiction?

Looking only at the surface, addiction would appear to be a disease. To become an addict, a person must first abuse mind-altering substances, which would seem to indicate a behavioral origin of addiction. If a person were to refrain from any type of alcohol or drug abuse, it would be physically impossible for him or her to become an addict; however, despite knowing the risks, individuals continue to abuse these substances, defying their better judgment and putting them on the path to addiction. We will return to this point momentarily.

In addition to the behavioral component wherein, people become addicts after choosing to abuse intoxicants recreationally, there are environmental and genetic causes of addiction. Genetic is the easiest to explain as it refers to the genes that could increase one’s susceptibility to addiction being passed from one generation to the next. There have been no specific genes identified, but there are many that could have some level of effect on the risk factors. On the other hand, the environment is known to be an extremely important variable. People who are exposed to lots of alcohol and drug abuse — whether by their loved ones or friends — will begin to see substance abuse as normal, making them more and more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs themselves.

man addicted to drugs

Why the Disease Model of Addiction Makes Sense

You’ve probably heard about the disease model of addiction since it’s been very highly publicized in recent years. In the simplest of terms, the disease model of addiction states that addiction is a relapsing brain disorder characterized by the altered structure and functioning of the brain. These changes occur over time; a person must begin abusing alcohol or drugs and then continue abusing alcohol or drugs for a prolonged period of time. It’s through the repeated abuse of these chemical substances that cause the altered structure and functioning of the brain. Put another way, addiction is precipitated by the conscious choice to abuse alcohol or drugs, but it develops through the continued use of alcohol and drugs.

The neurological changes that result from continued substance abuse are what cause many of the behavioral hallmarks of addiction. This includes a general lack of self-control, obsessive fixation on alcohol and drugs, emotional volatility, and similar changes in demeanor. It’s also the neurological changes that precipitate withdrawal symptoms; the continued use of mind-altering chemicals results in abnormal neurochemical levels, but as the brain begins to accommodate the altered neurochemical levels, it begins to see this abnormal state as normal with normal levels of neurochemicals being insufficient. This is what causes withdrawal symptoms.

Once you understand the disease model of addiction, it becomes rather obvious that it’s the most likely explanation for how addiction develops and functions. Fortunately, the clinical drug rehab industry has centered treatment methods around this idea that the brain must be at the center of an addict’s recovery. So if you or someone you love would benefit from a free consultation with one of our recovery specialists, call Ohio Addiction Recovery Centers toll-free at 800-481-8457. Don’t wait another day to begin the journey back to long-lasting health and happiness.

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