Is Addiction a Disease?

If you believe that you or someone you know may have a substance abuse or addiction problem, then you may be wondering about what addiction really is. After all, overcoming substance abuse and addiction will depend in part on understanding what it is and where it comes from. One of the most common descriptions of substance abuse and addiction is that it is a disease. Is this true? What do experts and scientists say about it? What does this mean for you? In this page we will discuss all of those questions and more to help you get started along the road to recovery.

Is Addiction A Disease? According to nearly every group of doctors and researchers, yes, addiction is a disease. It is officially classified as a mental illness by psychologists. The classification of addiction as a disease started out within the scientific community as a way to explain how addiction works and its origins. More recently, this idea has spread to substance abuse programs, treatment facilities, and other sources of support and helped them construct the best way to help those who are suffering from substance abuse and addiction.

The importance of viewing substance abuse and addiction as a disease requires a little historical background. Traditionally, substance abuse and addiction, especially alcohol abuse, was viewed as a moral failing. It was the result of poor willpower, weakness, or some other shortcoming. Under this approach, substance abuse was a series of deliberate, conscious efforts and bad choices. That meant methods of addressing substance abuse were limited to punishing those with problems and berating them for their moral mistakes. Often there was a religious dimension as well – people with substance abuse problems were guilty of repeated sins and their problems were their own fault. These approaches were not very effective. Their ongoing failure eventually led to the development of the disease model of addiction.

Understanding that substance abuse and addiction is a disease means viewing it not as a set of actions or choices that people actively make, but like any other disease, as something that happens to people for reasons not within their control. This, in turn, introduced the idea of treatment and recovery. Rather than punishing people for their choices, treating substance abuse and addiction eventually became about understanding its origins and developing methods to help using scientific and psychological research.

So is addiction a disease? The answer is yes. That answer has led to new approaches in fighting substance abuse and addiction.


The idea of treating substance abuse and addiction is a natural follow-up to the concept of addiction as a disease. Treatment for substance abuse and addiction is not a one size fits all. The most important distinction is between different kinds of addictive substances. For example, some substances, such as opiates or nicotine, have medical and chemical treatments. There are substitute substances that are both less addictive and less dangerous to help people who use those drugs gradually take less and less over time. This kind of approach is useful when the substance has a dangerous withdrawal syndrome or when the chemical dependence in the brain can be redirected to a less harmful substance. For opiates, methadone or suboxone are common substitutes. People can start taking suboxone or methadone rather than an opiate, and slowly taper down to a progressively lower dosage and eventually off the medication all together..

For other drugs, the preferred treatment is mostly therapy and counseling. Because substance abuse and addiction is a mental illness, it is possible to use therapeutic techniques to fight it. These vary based on the substance, the therapist, and the patient. Often, they are centered around empowering you and strengthening your ability to fight the urge to use. There are specific mental tools and skills that you can learn to accomplish this. Therapy might involve group sessions as well, where you can have open conversations with other people about recovery.


There is another major advantage to treating substance abuse and addiction with therapy, and that is the fact that therapy can also help treat other mental illnesses. Very few people suffer from drug abuse alone. In almost every case, it comes with one or more other mental concerns, like depression, anxiety, a mood disorder, or something else. Treating substance abuse and addiction works best when you can treat the other issues at the same time. This will also lead to better life outcomes because you can alleviate the symptoms and obstacles that come from those other mental health issues.

The term for the mental illnesses that appear alongside addiction in co-occurring disorders is “co-morbid”. A co-morbid mental illness is a big part of what makes recovery so difficult. It is hard to fully heal unless you are addressing everything at once. Through the same kind of therapy that can help with your addiction, you can also receive treatment for comorbidities. This will not only ease recovery but also make it easier to improve your financial situation, your housing, your relationships to family and friends, and make other positive changes in your life.

If we think of mental illness as just bad choices or poor morals, then we would be ignoring the important role that comorbidities play in preventing recovery. The best way to treat substance abuse and addiction is to recognize it for the disease that it is and frame support for people fighting substance abuse in that context.

If you believe that you are struggling with a substance abuse or addiction problem, then consider entering into some form of treatment. Everyone’s path to recovery is unique. A detox and treatment facility might be one part of that journey, for example. That would involve spending some time staying at an inpatient center where you will get supervised care from doctors, nurses, and therapists in a controlled environment. Much recovery work is also done in an outpatient setting, where you live out in the community and make regular visits to a facility for medical care, therapy, or both. Think about what would be the best fit for you and your background.

Treating substance abuse and addiction as a disease enables compassionate, supportive, and non-judgemental care. Consider calling St John’s Recovery Place if you want to learn more about how treatment works and how to get started on your path to recovery. The earlier you begin treatment, the sooner you can start freeing yourself from the burdens of your substance abuse or addiction.

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