Is Addiction Really a Disease?


It has been accepted in the addiction community and more broadly that alcoholism or addiction is a disease. The ‘disease concept’ is taught in addiction training programs and explained to patients in treatment programs. Learn more about why this is the commonly shared thought process and whether it is accurate.

A Short History

Prior to the disease concept becoming widely popular, society was prejudiced against people with addictions moreso than in present times. People with addiction were seen as less than ‘normal’ folks. They were often thought to be lacking in ordinary discipline and morality. Even more, the individuals were viewed as having deficiencies of character. When addiction was considered a disease, much like diabetes or tuberculosis, the idea meant people with addictions were sick rather than bad. People became less critical towards those suffering from addiction. With all the benefits this brings (less stigma, more support), the idea continues to attract powerful support across the board.

Just the Facts

Enthusiasm to embrace the disease model has led to a willingness to overlook facts. Addiction does not have much in common with diseases. It is, rather, a group of behaviors instead of an illness. It cannot be explained by any disease process and calling it a ‘disease’ interferes with exploring or accepting new understandings of the nature of addiction.

When comparing addiction with true diseases, addiction is not an infections agent and has no pathological biological process (like diabetes) and is not degenerative (as in Alzheimer’s). The current version of the disease concept ‘chronic brain disease,’ applies to rats but has repeatedly been shown as applicable in humans. However, when looking further, addictive behavior occurs when precipitated by significant events in the emotional life of an individual and may be supported by understanding what makes those emotional events so important so as to replace them with other emotionally meaningful actions or symptoms which are not addictions. Addictive behavior is then more understandable as a symptom, not a disease.

Psychological Effects

The recognition of addiction as a common psychological symptom means it is more in the mainstream of human condition. Addiction is then essentially the same as other compulsive behaviors such as shopping, exercising or cleaning even when it causes myriad more issues. It is basically the same internally as a symptom. Since compulsive behaviors are so common, any idea ‘addicts’ are sicker or lazier than others or different becomes an indefensible position. Despite all past helpfulness, people are better off without the disease concept for addiction. It may hinder new ways of recognizing treatments for the challenges of addiction. When the disease model is scrapped and labels fall away, people who suffer with addiction can finally stop thinking of the self and others as ‘diseased,’ and start to find solutions.


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