There has long been a debate on whether or not addiction should be classified as a disease. People in both camps have valid reasons for their stance, with some saying that calling addiction a disease makes it harder to treat because it takes away the accountability of the person struggling. Others argue that understanding addiction as a disease makes it easier for people to seek treatment because it helps eliminate the barriers of accusation and shame.

A disease is typically defined as a condition that impairs or restricts normal functioning, often displayed in a series of symptoms and signs.

However you choose to interpret addiction, what’s most important is that those in need seek and receive help. Ultimately, calling addiction a disease is a matter of semantics. But it is clear that substance use can be overcome with a combination of the right resources, mindset and hard work.

Stance 1: Defining Addiction as a Disease Makes Treatment More Difficult

For many, including some who struggle with substances, classifying addiction as a disease seems like an unjust lack of accountability. Those who argue against referring to addiction as a disease see the issue as a matter of personal choice. In most cases, a person chooses to start using drugs or alcohol. Some may suggest that referring to people recovering from substances as “patients” takes away ownership and creates a sterile, clinical environment in treatment that doesn’t take personal responsibility into account.

With this mentality in mind, calling addiction a disease may be a misnomer. Cancer, diabetes, and other diseases seemingly happen to people regardless of their personal choices, while addiction has a tangible cause — drug or alcohol use. But while cancer and diabetes may not have direct, obvious causes, it’s important to remember that, like addiction, several factors may contribute to their development, including genetic predisposition, environmental factors and lifestyle choices.

Classifying addiction as a disease can be detrimental to treatment for some people, creating a sense of hopelessness at the hands of an uncontrollable medical label. With this in mind, it’s helpful to recognize all the factors involved in substance abuse, including physical dependence, emotional trauma, family history and co-occurring disorders like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For long-term recovery, it’s important to fully accept and understand the full range of symptoms and issues associated with substance use disorder, instead of being intimidated by a term like “disease.”

Stance 2: Classifying Addiction as a Disease Makes Treatment Easier

While there is continued debate in the recovery community on whether or not addiction is a disease, many in the medical field agree that there is often a genetic predisposition for substance use disorder. Coupled with the mental and physical side effects of substance use disorder, addiction meets many of the requirements for classification as a disease. Although a person may choose to use drugs or alcohol, becoming dependent on these substances is often beyond their control. Some may develop a substance use disorder after being prescribed painkillers following a surgery, while others may experience a traumatic life event that elevates social drinking to binge drinking and beyond. While some people can maintain a balanced relationship with substances, others are unable to use them in moderation, either because of genetics or willpower.

For many, looking at addiction as a disease offers a compassionate lens for treatment. This mindset can open the door to recovery for people who would otherwise be awash with shame or embarrassment. Instead of taking away their personal accountability, some would argue that understanding addiction as a disease can help motivate change, much like a healthy lifestyle change or medical treatment following the diagnosis of other illnesses. Likewise, treating addiction as a disease highlights the medical attention that is often necessary. Completing a full continuum of care, from medical detox to inpatient and outpatient programs, can help many stay on track and learn new coping methods.

Because substance use disorder rarely forms on its own, treating it as a disease can help people medically identify triggers and roots like co-occurring mental disorders and genetic predispositions. Drug and alcohol rehab programs help teach people to manage difficult life events and struggles without substances, creating a path toward long-term healing.

Getting Help Is Key

Despite the argument between disease and choice, determining if classifying addiction as a disease makes treatment harder or easier ultimately depends on the individual. Because recovery is a personal journey, it’s no surprise that different perspectives resonate with different people. Understanding addiction as a disease may be a motivator for treatment for some, while it may seem limiting to others. Regardless of each individual’s take on it, recognizing a problem and seeking help are the most important steps. Addiction treatment is often more successful when a person takes responsibility for their actions, but also understands their family history and medical inclinations.

If you or someone you know is ready to seek alcohol or drug rehab program, call  877.427.7401 The Recovery Village to learn more about treatment options. With the right tools and determination, you can work toward the lifetime goal of recovery.  

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By – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.