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Is addiction a disease?

When someone hears the word “disease”, all sorts of images come to mind. Most of the time, these images are related to a physical illness of some kind. What most individuals don’t think about when considering disease is addiction. Yet, the American Medical Association (AMA) classified it as a disease in 1987 and classed alcoholism as a disease 31 years before that, in 1956. After 35 years of addiction being officially recognised as a disease, why is it that those with substance use disorder are stigmatised?

You’ve seen it before. You might have been passing by on the street, maybe you were on a bus, or maybe you have seen a video online. When an individual whose substance use disorder is open for the public to see, often people will make negative remarks. They may also laugh or get their cameras out to film that individual. What is not recognised, however, is that the subject of these people’s enjoyment is someone who is locked in the cage of a disease that is most likely dealing with a plethora of other mental health issues..

It is incredibly hard for someone struggling with addiction to break the cycle before their addiction swallows them up. The shame about being ‘an addict’, the physical and mental toll substances take, the fact that family and friends may be lost; these are all things that make addiction even harder to break free from. Let alone the actual cravings and physical symptoms an individual may experience from withdrawal from a substance.

In order to help those struggling with this disease, the stigma of being ‘an addict’ must be put into the hot seat. Being addicted to a substance is hard enough, but what makes it even harder is when the stigma of addiction causes an individual to stigmatise themselves. This stigmatisation of addiction has a double effect. On one hand, an individual with substance use disorder may label themselves as ‘an addict’ and all of the negative connotations that come with it. On the other hand, that individual may also hide their addiction from loved ones, in the fear of being judged.

Quite evidently, this stigma is nothing but a socially constructed negative influence that only makes the disease even more devastating. In order to guide someone struggling with addiction to break free from its grasp, compassion, understanding and patience is needed. Along with the right medical help and support, someone with addiction issues really can turn their life around, but would they want to even start if they think they are going to be judged?

Eradicating the judgement that has been clouding addiction for a long time is the best thing we can do if we want to support those struggling with it. I am fortunate enough that no one close to me has ever been addicted to anything that has been potentially damaging for our relationship. I have, however, worked with people that have had struggles with addiction. What I can say is that those people I worked with are the most genuinely grateful people when it comes to showing compassion and humanity.

I am not saying that each of us has to go out of our way to house someone who has lost their home and family to addiction, but I am saying that we could all, collectively, make it known that we do not judge those with substance use disorders. The next time you see someone that you suspect has a problem with addiction, don’t see them as an object or something less than human. Respect that they are people that had dreams like you and I, that were stripped away by a horrible disease.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with a substance use disorder please click here to go directly to the NHS’s page about getting help for addiction.

As the NHS say themselves, ‘If you need treatment for drug addiction, you're entitled to NHS care in the same way as anyone else who has a health problem’.


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