Is Drug Addiction a Disease or Mental Illness?

Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on July 30, 2021.

What is addiction? All too often, the language used to describe it carries a negative stigma. Medical and psychological experts have long classified addiction as a complex disease with mental and behavioral components. Yet, many people still have the misconception that addiction represents a weakness, lack of self-control, poor decision making, a moral flaw, bad character or criminal behavior. By this rationale, those addicted to drugs or alcohol just need more self-discipline. If only treating addiction were that simple.

It’s obvious that most don’t understand what addiction is.

Addiction is both a mental illness and a disease. As we learn how it originates in the body and mind, we can better understand how addiction’s behaviors can be overcome through treatment.

Is Drug Addiction a Brain Disorder? 

Substance use changes the way the brain operates, impacting key regions and functions. As a result, those addicted to drugs and alcohol often find it painfully difficult to quit. As we examine how addiction impacts the brain and how the mind works, it’s clear that this condition is a brain disorder and a mental illness. Here are some of the key brain changes experts have observed in those addicted to drugs or alcohol:

  • The brain’s reward circuit is desensitized. Everyday activities feel less pleasurable without addictive substances.
  • Addiction produces intense cravings accompanied by negative emotions when these cravings go unsatisfied.
  • Drug or alcohol use becomes a conditioned response to stress and other triggers.
  • The brain’s executive functioning is weakened, including impulse control, decision making and self-regulation.

Is Drug Addiction a Disease? 

Addiction is also defined as a disease by most medical associations. Persistent use of drugs or alcohol changes the way both the brain and body function. Some people who use these substances in their youth can stop once they take on more adult responsibilities. For others, addiction becomes a chronic, long-lasting disease that can only be controlled — not cured.

The initial decision to use a substance is usually someone’s free choice. For this reason, some argue that addiction cannot be a disease. This argument doesn’t hold up, though. Choice does not determine whether or not something is a disease. Think about other chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer. Personal choices and habits like diet, exercise and sun exposure can play a role in the development of these conditions.

Severe addiction is caused by a combination of risk factors, including biology, psychology and environment. In fact, genetic risks play a huge role in the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction.

Can Addiction Be Treated?

Understanding that addiction is both a mental illness and a disease can serve as a source of consolation for anyone struggling with a substance use disorder. Why? Because both of these conditions are medically treatable. Experts continue to study addictive behaviors through the lens of neurology and biology, ensuring better, more effective treatments in the future. Understanding addiction is also a huge step in ending the negative stigmas and encouraging people to choose treatment.

Nobody can choose how their mind and body react to substances. However, you can choose to get help. If you struggle with a substance use disorder, you need a rehab center that follows the medical model of treatment. At Diamond House Detox, we do just that. Contact us today to learn more.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet
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