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End the stigma of addiction

May 17, 2017

To be successful, we need to embrace best practices for medically treating the disease of addiction.

“I come to you in the form of comfort. I’ll be there when no one else seems to be. I’ll provide the escape you’ve been seeking and I won’t tell a soul. I’ll make your biggest worries disappear and make you feel whole again. I do, however, get jealous. Like a possessive lover, I will turn you from anyone who tries to take you from me. I will give you instant gratification in return for your long-term commitment to put me first. You thought you knew the price when you invited me, but you didn't know the cost over time. You have chosen me over reality because I help dull the pain and those feelings that can be overwhelming. Many of your friends and family members do not take me very seriously; they take diabetes and lupus seriously, but not me. Those people think your willpower alone is strong enough to get rid of me. They don't know that I live in the part of your brain that tells you to breathe. I hate those times when you put up a fight. You talk to doctors and counselors and go to meetings to try to learn a new way of life. You seek the support of others who have learned to overcome me. Even while you are learning how to quiet me, I am just laying here and waiting for a moment of weakness. I am addiction, your viscous disease.“

Addiction is defined as, “a chronic relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking use, despite harmful consequences.” – National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH)

Addiction is considered a disease because drugs change the brain’s structure and how it works.

Drug addiction does not receive as much sympathy as other diseases because for many years it was viewed it as a choice people were making. It was believed that people brought it upon themselves and they could stop, if only they tried harder. Thanks to countless medical researchers and behavioral psychologists, we have found that addiction is deeply rooted in physiological changes in the body's chemistry. “First, decades of scientific research and technological advances have given us a better understanding of the functioning and neurobiology of the brain and how substance use affects brain chemistry and our capacity for self-control. One of the most important findings of this research is that addiction is a chronic neurological disorder and needs to be treated as other chronic conditions,” (Surgeon General's Report on Addiction, 2016).

One way to explain what research is finding is to think back to your childhood, when you received a balloon filled with helium. You ran outside and released the balloon into the sky, then watched it float up for a minute before the wind carried it away. Then, you realized you didn’t want to let it go forever and you regretted your decision. As children, we didn’t understand the consequences of letting the balloon go. We didn’t foresee that willing it to “Come back,” or yelling “Go to the left,” could not control the balloon after you let it go.

Drug abuse is very similar. Why a person started using and “let go” is beyond you and I. Some people become addicted to opiates as a result of pain medication prescribed by their doctor after surgery or an accident. Others turn to drugs or alcohol to numb overwhelming feelings for a period of time. Addiction doesn't distinguish why a person started taking drugs or drinking. Once addiction has taken hold and the brain chemistry has been changed, a person cannot simply will their control to "Come back."

Every 25 seconds someone is arrested for drug possession. Gary Mohr, director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, estimates that 80% of the more than 50,000 of Ohio’s state prison inmates have histories of drug and/or alcohol addiction. But locking addicts up is like yelling at the balloon to "Go to the left." It doesn't have any proven effect on changing a person's addiction. There is no data to demonstrate prison time alone reduces substance use.

With the knowledge that addiction is a medical disease, we must start to treat it like one. Individuals with other diseases that also have behavioral components, such as diabetes, are not subject to criminal penalties and revocation of their medical care if they consume too many sweets. Yet that is the approach that has often been taken with people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. The Surgeon General’s Report highlights, “We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw – it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”

Alvis' substance abuse treatment programming works to change behavior by changing thinking in a structured, therapeutic way. Every Alvis program uses research based programming to effect changes in the way individuals think and behave. This kind of programming has been proven to be effective in treating addiction. Medication-assisted treatment protocols are showing even further promise in improving success rates. Unlike a punitive approach, such as a prison sentence, many individuals who participate in community treatment programs are able to stay with their families, continue to work, and otherwise continue to be a part of our community as a whole. In turn, these "pro-social" activities help keep individuals motivated to stay in treatment.

We must minimize judgment while referring to the disease of addiction. A person wouldn’t say, “Gosh, diabetics are pathetic.” Yet people do say, “Gosh, addicts are pathetic.” Our goal should be to end the negative stigma that addiction carries - it is counterproductive to successful treatment and no disease should be treated like a character flaw.

To learn more about myths vs. reality in addiction treatment, click here to access information in the 2016 Surgeon General’s Report on addiction.

If you or a family member are struggling with addiction, please call 2-1-1 for a list of treatment resources in your area.

Mariah Haitz, Communications Intern, is the primary author of this blog post.

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