Why Addiction is a Disease, Not a Moral Failing

2. June 2016

There are many substances that have a high potential for abuse. To someone who’s, for whatever reason, particularly susceptible to substance abuse, it’s like being a child in a candy store. But for everyone else, it’s like trying to walk through a minefield. However, despite the dangers inherent in substance abuse, the number of people becoming addicts is growing significantly faster than the number of addicts overcoming their addictions. Clearly, this is a scourge on our society that’s as resilient as it is resistance to recovery.

Fortunately, there are a variety of treatments that are available to help those that would like to get their lives back. There are inpatient programs, outpatient programs, holistic and faith-based programs, a variety of support groups, and many other resources available as well. In essence, there are a variety of recovery resources available to appeal to a very broad range of needs; however, the vast potential of the treatments available isn’t being realized because there are so few people willing to seek and receive treatment.

One of the biggest problems today is the stigma of addiction. Many people look at addicts in an extremely negative light, assuming that they’re bad people who are immoral and essentially have no redeeming qualities. This result of this stigma is that it discourages people from seeking help for their addictions since they don’t want to be treated poorly or demonized for having a disease and asking for help. Much of the stigma today is residual from previous decades, which is why we’re going to take a look to the past to understand why there are still so many people who see addiction as a moral failing rather than a disease; after that, we’ll review the compelling evidence that proves, more or less, addiction is a disease.

Addiction Attitudes of Years Past

Before we amassed the wealth of research we have at our disposal today, people who exhibited problematic substance consumption behavior were considered to be consciously choosing not to exercise any self-control. As their behaviors escalated, society began to see them as merely being bad people who were of weak character, weak in will, and lacking in a relationship with God. As a result, people with substance abuse problems were largely punished, which meant being incarcerated in prisons and asylums. The idea was that being imprisoned would force them into sobriety while the threat of additional incarceration would force them into future abstinence. However, it didn’t actually work out that way.

Instead, many of the substance abusers who had been imprisoned would quickly return to their prior consumption behaviors after being released from prison or asylums. This indicated that there was something more to substance abuse behavior than met the eye. Although it appeared as though these individuals were making the choice to abuse substances, we would eventually come to learn that was not the case. On the cusp of the twentieth century, some of the first rehabilitation facilities were opened as well as a string of primitive sober houses where individuals could go to get sober while supervised by volunteers, often members of the local clergy. Over the course of the proceeding decades, there would be more and better facilities to emerge as we would come to learn a lot of the nature of addiction.

drug addict laying on the floor

Remnants of Prejudice Against Substance Abusers

With many, many rehabs and treatment facilities—some estimate there to be more than 14,000 rehabs in the U.S. alone—there are many addicts who have recovery resources available to them but the reality is that only one in ten addicts is receiving any type of treatment. In other words, at least 90 percent of all people currently addicted to alcohol and drugs are on track to remain in active addiction until this disease kills them. While it may seem irrational to consciously choose not to pursue any channels for rehabilitation, there are actually many different reasons why an addict might choose to remain in active addiction, and some of those reasons contribute to the addiction stigma that persists today despite the information available.

As mentioned previously, society used to consider addicts merely as bad people. Although these attitudes prevailed at a time when there was little evidence to the contrary, many people still demonize people who suffer from addiction. As a result, there are a number of people in need of treatment who don’t want to pursue recovery because it would require them to admit to being addicted in the first place, leaving themselves vulnerable to discrimination and potentially even harassment. Additionally, many addicts worry that seeking treatment for addiction will result in losing their jobs. It’s technically not legal for employers to terminate employment due to a person seeking treatment for addiction unless the employer has reason to believe the individual had been intoxicated on the job, but it’s not impossible for an employer to terminate employment due to some other technicality. Many addicts are also in denial of their need for recovery or they don’t want their families to be ashamed of them.

The Disease Model of Addiction

The culmination of all the research that has been conducted on addiction has been, more or less, summed up by the disease model of addiction. According to the disease model, addiction is a chronic, progressive, relapsing brain disease that causes people to exhibit obsessive behaviors and compulsively behave in ways that result in negative consequences. We came to this conclusion because of how addicts clearly defy their own logic, behaving in ways that result in negative consequences when they know all they need to do is resist substance abuse to avoid any such repercussions. Additionally, there have been actual structural changes observed in the brains of addicts, so compulsive substance abuse doesn’t just cause functional changes. We can only hope that more people will begin to embrace the evidence and move past the stigmatization of addiction as some type of moral affliction.

Intervention Services Can Help You Find Your Way Back To Health

If you or someone you love would benefit from a free consultation with one of our recovery coordinators, call Intervention Services today at 1-877-478-4621. Whether it’s day or night, we’re available anytime to help you or your loved one find the way back to sobriety, health, and happiness.