What would happen if drug or alcohol addiction were treated like any other disease? What if medical detox and inpatient addiction treatment were viewed the way we see chemotherapy treatment for cancer? What if intensive outpatient therapy was seen as comparable to cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack? Would addiction treatment be taken more seriously by society if we treated addiction like the disease it is?
One major challenge for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction and their families is dealing with and overcoming the challenges of stigma. Individuals with addictions are scorned in the workplace and community; celebrities with addictions are hounded by the paparazzi (Lamar Odom and Kim Richards, anyone?) Many people still believe that addiction is a character flaw, moral failure, or a weakness in a person – that a woman with alcoholism just “can’t hold her liquor” or a man struggling with heroin addiction is “dirty” or we say that they “just need to stop.” The reality of addiction is that majority of people struggling with substances are just like anyone else: they are our mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, cousins, neighbors, coworkers, friends. They hold down jobs, go to school, have families, and go out with friends. They do not fit into a molded stereotype.
Addiction as a Disease – Not a Choice
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” The disease of addiction affects both the mind and the body. Without proper treatment, the disease can be deadly. And for nearly 100 Americans today, and everyday – it will be fatal. Addiction overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, yet the disease isn’t being treated seriously. It’s not a readily accepted disease, like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. Because of the misconceptions and stigmas of addiction, and the idea that anyone with an addiction should “just stop” – we’ve downplayed the seriousness of a major killer in our country.
Treating Addiction as a Disease
Enter a search on Google for addiction rehab and you’ll be swarmed by ads and websites offering treatment for heroin, Hydrocodone, alcohol, benzos and more. Some addiction treatment centers are certified, credible, have the proper resources and staff, and really will help your loved one. Many will not. There are numerous rehab centers, halfway houses, and addiction treatment facilities that pop up that have no business treating anyone – let alone someone with a deadly disease. If the same type of facilities opened up for cancer patients, there would be public outcry – and they would be shut down. Why don’t the same rules apply when it comes to treating any disease that is a known killer? Shouldn’t people have the same opportunities to receive fair treatment?
Correcting Common Misconceptions
Addiction won’t be treated in accordance to other disease so long as stigmas linger in our society. It’s crucial that we correct these three major widespread misconceptions:
- Individuals who get addicted to drugs or alcohol are weak-minded and have no morals. It isn’t about character flaws, moral failings, or strength – addiction is a disease. Assuming that a person struggling with drug or alcohol addiction doesn’t have the willpower to stop using drugs or alcohol, is wrong. A person with an addiction can’t “just stop” because his or her brain has been altered to recognize drugs as normal. Understanding that addiction is a disease means recognizing that it needs to be treated as such.
- People need to hit “rock bottom” before they can be treated for drug or alcohol addiction. This misconception is as deadly as it is false. Waiting to hit “rock bottom” could mean waiting until it is too late. Every person struggling with addiction has a different “bottom.” For some people, getting a DUI or losing their home is considered rock bottom. For others, it may be getting fired from a job, losing custody of their children, or divorce. For many, however, there is never a perfect desperate moment. The level of consequences that addicted people face before seeking help has very little to do with the level of success they find in treatment. It’s important to realize that instead of waiting for just the right moment to go to treatment – that it’s better to get help sooner than later.
- Punishment is the only way to cure addiction. Unfortunately, we live in a society that – over the years – has a tendency to punish addiction rather than treat it. We’re of the belief that jail time can “scare” people into sobriety. While it may be true that a person can get sober in jail – by being cut off from his or her access to drugs – it’s not actually treating the disease. Without the tools of recovery learned in treatment, relapse after jail time in highly likely.
In order for drug addiction to be treated in accordance with the same health care standards of any other progressive disease, it would require a shift in our thinking and actions as a society. It’s crucial that we stop the stigma and bury the misconceptions that addiction is a choice. The lives of our friends, family members, neighbors and community members relies on it.