Is addiction a disease? It depends on who you ask. Classifying addiction as a disease is most prevalent and most accurate. Yet this still remains controversial as so many are hurt by someone else’s addiction. Here are 9 reasons why calling addiction a disease helps everyone, especially those hurt the most.

People are angry and confused about addiction with good reason. For many years, we kept quiet. No one talked about Uncle Johnny’s drinking or drugging. Now we are turning the tide and putting it all out there. We’ve even changed the name for it. Addiction is now called substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder, and some experts will call you out if you don’t use it.

Why Is Addiction Called A Disease?

In 1956, the American Medical Association in 1956 developed the disease model based. Essentially, the group of physicians found that because addiction has:

  • Tolerance of dosage
  • Loss of control
  • Withdrawal
  • Social and/or physical impairment

Ergo, medically speaking, addiction is a chronic, progressive, irreversible, and relapsing disease. The DSM-5, the bible of psychological disorders, reveals the disease process with diagnostic criteria including cravings, using even when causing physical or psychological problems, tolerance, and withdrawal. Dr.George Koob, in the NIH Medline Plus, relates that:

“This expanding research knowledge will aid the development of new evidence-based prevention and treatment strategies for alcohol problems across the lifespan, including the diverse alcohol-related diseases that occur throughout the body, and help find better ways to deliver health service for alcohol problems.”

Some people argue that using the disease model gives patients who are suffering from substance use disorder an excuse to keep using. On the contrary, people are often relieved to know there’s a reason they suffer and can’t stop.

9 Reasons Why The Disease Classification Helps

The disease model, while not perfect, allows many opportunities to help in the recovery of the illness. SAMHSA delineates four major dimensions regarding recovery from addiction:

  • Health
  • Home
  • Purpose, and
  • Community

By expanding the definition of disease and recovery, people are more apt to work towards healing and growth, specifically in these 9 key areas.

1. A Medical Diagnosis Allows For Insurance Coverage

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equality Act of 2008 requires insurance companies to treat alcoholism as a disease. They must provide for such coverage.

2. The Medical Community Can Treat And Monitor

By classifying alcoholism as a disease, the medical community is able to embrace the diagnosis. Physicians can more effectively monitor and treat the individual by utilizing medical care either through inpatient, intensive outpatient, and/or outpatient treatment. Hospitals, outpatient health clinics, and community mental health treatment facilities can examine the illness and treat as needed.

Significant physical health problems arise from alcoholism. It affects numerous organs within the body and causes numerous illnesses such as:

  • Heart, liver, brain, and pancreatic problems
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Alcoholism can also lead to a premature death.

3. Medical Interventions Treat Ease Recovery And Improve Physical Deficiencies

Because of this classification, physicans can use medication to aid in the recovery process such as:

  • Thiamine for vitamin deficiencies
  • Psychotropic medications for withdrawal, and
  • Medications to help with cravings (such as Antabuse, Naltrexone, or Suboxone).

Also, alcoholics often need medical intervention for related illnesses.

4. Disease Classification Opens Doors To Therapies

Calling addiction a disease lets doctors prescribe other therapies for mental health issues are related to physiological issues. Counseling techniques, recovery management, relapse prevention, and exploring other mental health concerns allows for treating the illness in a comprehensive manner.

5. Illness Vs. Moral Failing

The disease model decreases the stigma of addiction by embracing it as an illness, not a weakness. Accepting that addiction is a disease, just as one needs to accept other diagnoses such as diabetes, lessens guilt and shame. As a result, patients are more likely to buy in to a program. Viewing addiction as a personal failing or criminal misconduct tends to perpetuate addiction instead of foster change.

6. Treatment Includes Family Members

When addiction is a disease, the whole family gets help. Families are involved in patient education and the treatment plan. Plus, they can heal from their own enabling behaviors and codependency.

7. Studies Examine The Disease

Science provides an increased knowledge of the disease, brain dysfunction, prevention, treatment, and pharmacology treatment. Likewise, scientific studies evaluate the effectiveness of monitoring and other methods of healing from the illness.

8. Public Health Policies Can Be Examined And Funded

Addiction affects the whole community, not just the individual. Changes in public health polices can lead not only to primary treatment, but also to prevention through education.

9. The Recovery Community’s Resources Can Be Utilized

The recovery community, by embracing the illness, offers treatment, recovery groups, aftercare programs, sponsors, and Alcoholics Anonymous as well as other self-help groups such as the 16 Steps of Empowerment, Rational Recovery, and Secular Sobriety.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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