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The Power of Words: Understanding Addiction as a Disease & Mental Health Issue

1 Your Role
I want to learn about treatment options for:

2 Basic Information
The Person is:
years old

graduated high school

3 Condition Information
Caron Treatment Centers accepts patients aged 13 years or older. For more information on services available to those 12 and under, please learn more about Caron's Student Assistance Program.

“Addiction is a choice.” “It’s their own fault.” “Didn't your parents teach you right from wrong?”

In March, Caron ran an ad on Facebook sharing an infographic on heroin. The above were a few of the comments the ad received. The way we talk about issues often frames the way they are perceived. With the examples above, ‘choice’ implies deliberate action, ‘fault’ implies blame, and ‘right from wrong’ implies an issue of morality. There are many problems with talking about addiction in this framework. Mostly, the use of this language is a result of the lack of understanding about addiction as a disease and the co-occurring disorders and mental health issues that often accompany it. In honor of May’s Mental Health Month, we have decided to address this important topic.

Choice: No one wakes up one day and thinks, “I’d like to be an addict.” Addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease (Learn more from NIDA and ASAM). There is an incessant craving for, increased tolerance of, and physical dependence on a substance. Addiction affects a person’s brain chemistry, changing the neural pathways. This affects a person’s thoughts and actions. When a person becomes addicted, they can’t stop using, at least not on their own, even if their use results in negative consequences. Addiction is not a choice; it is a result of genetics and environmental factors. However, addicts can choose to seek help and remain committed to their treatment and ongoing recovery plan.

Fault: People try to place blame on addicts for their addiction, often rationalizing that if the person didn’t try a substance in the first place, he or she would never have become addicted. This view illustrates a lack of understanding because addiction rarely occurs in a vacuum. More often than not, there are multiple co-occurring issues. It’s important to understand the full picture and be aware of what’s really going on. Why has this person turned to a substance – Depression? Trauma? A disorder? People often turn to substances as a way to cope with issues in their lives. Many people also have a genetic predisposition to addiction, which means they may be much more likely to become addicted to a substance. To blame a person for having addiction and mental health issues is tantamount to blaming them for developing an autoimmune disease.

Right from wrong: The concept that if drugs are bad, then the people taking them are bad too has dangerous societal implications. Addiction has nothing to do with morality or a person’s character. People don’t think less of those with cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, but when it comes to addiction, people suffering are highly stigmatized. Never mind the fact that addiction can affect anyone, whether it’s the CEO of a company or your 12-year-old daughter. Yes, sometimes people suffering from addiction make bad decisions and may even act immorally, but so do people not suffering from the disease. Furthermore, when one is in active addiction – he or she may lose sight of what is right and wrong. 

None of the above is meant to excuse people for their behavior. In fact, part of recovery and working the 12-steps is acknowledging and taking responsibility for one’s actions as well as making amends. The purpose of this piece is a call to action. As a society, we need to change the way we talk about the disease of addiction. We need to stop critiquing, stop blaming, and stop judging those suffering from the disease. There are millions of people who are in need of treatment, but are too afraid or ashamed to reach out for help. It’s time to choose to be mindful, support people’s decision to get help, and respect people taking their recovery one day at a time.

Get a better understanding of the disease of addiction. Hear from one of our alumni and learn about their journey from addiction to recovery: Recovery & College: Anything is Possible