• Addiction is, in fact, a disease of the brain, but many continue to insist that it is not—and doing so only causes sufferers further harm.
  • This stigma surrounding addiction discourages those who suffer with the disease from opening up about their struggles and getting the help that they need.
  • To break this stigma, we must continue talking openly about this issue and practice empathy and patience during these tough conversations.
  • Furthermore, those who are wary about the notion that addiction is a disease should take a step back and do their best to understand a sufferer’s unique perspective.

You can just get off drugs. Going cold turkey is easy. Can’t you see you’re wasting your life?

Statements as such perpetuate the error that addiction is not a disease of the mind or that it’s even a disease at all. In fact, addiction to substances is both a societal and medical issue that needs continuous addressing. To begin, it’s important to point out that addiction can be both inherited and developed overtime as a chronic medical condition.

A question many ask is, “Isn’t being addicted to drugs a choice?” My answer: A complicated question usually has a complicated answer. Plus, the wrong question is usually asked. Perhaps it is fair to say that taking a drug is a choice, but addiction is not. Medical doctors, psychotherapists, and other clinical professionals are not asking about both medical and psychological history for the fun of it. They want to know if substance addiction runs in your family because it is a legitimate disease of the brain.

The Cold Hard Facts of Addiction

In 2014 alone, over 21 million Americans experienced substance use disorder, and these are the numbers that were actually recorded. Taking the effort to understand that this is a disease has been taboo for long enough. No wonder those battling with this do not want to express their struggles; they are told it’s a choice they continue to make, and that’s it. He or she is then tossed to the side as if they wanted to be isolated—they don’t.

I would gently express to those who think otherwise to think of a disease they know of already (e.g., syphilis, diabetes, etc.). Next, it’s good to discuss how the disease, whether acquired or inherited, changes the body. Lastly, I think it’s good to educate that our brain structure and chemistry also change with disease, especially when it comes to substance use disorders.

There’s no arguing with someone who already feels different than you do about this. All it tells me is that sometimes we get so passionate about a subject, we forget others have opinions too. But in this case, there’s factual medical evidence that there are millions of individual lives who are affected by this disease. Though this medical knowledge is nothing new, it might be new to someone who does not agree that addiction is a disease, and that’s okay. Whether it’s a close friend or family member you are speaking to, it will take time, warmth and education for those around you to understand this medical condition.

Empathy and Open Dialogue

To those who place blame on the sufferer, it’s time to step back to listen to those suffering for a moment. It is hard enough to say you are struggling with addiction because shame and guilt already attenuate the person’s voice in society as if he or she are not important. They may already feel scapegoated from their friends and family because “it was their choice to continue being addicted to drugs.” But just for a moment, I wonder what would happen if we looked past their addiction and decided to speak to the person in general.

It’s time to create healthy dialogue between those struggling and those watching. Asking open questions, actively listening, and doing your best to understand their unique perspective is a great place to start. Of course, I also think it’s a great idea that you buddy up and get your struggling friend or family member to seek professional help. Mental health therapists would be more than happy to bring you in as support if the person struggling feels it would better their treatment plan. Ultimately, many struggling with this just want to be understood. It might take a brave soul like yourself to break this stigma once and for all.

*Jacob Kountz is a marriage and family therapist trainee and clinic manager of a CSU in California. He has experience in family therapy training, parent-child relationships, couples therapy, social skills for highly anxious clients, depressed clients, and disconnection between family members. Additionally, he runs a mental health blog called KernWellnessCounseling.*