Addiction Disorder: Is Substance Abuse a Mental Disorder | Valley Behavioral Health
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March 13, 2020 By Dr. Todd Thatcher, DO, CMO

Depressed Sad Young Man Crying Sitting On Stairs Feeling Miserab

Words matter. In the discussion of what it means to be addicted to substances, the way it is described and defined has huge implications for the way addiction is treated. Society’s view of addiction directly impacts the ways in which treatment is accessed. The way society views addiction is largely influenced by the way it is viewed and treated in the field of medicine. Addiction treatment has hinged on these interdependent factors over time, and this has influenced the way people with addiction have been treated by society’s culture and in most behavioral health facilities. Historically, addiction has been viewed as a moral failing, which shamed people who were struggling and cast them further into secrecy and isolation. As science has continued to study the brain and has gained a greater understanding of addiction, the definitions have started to evolve. When science started to postulate the question, ‘Is drug addiction a disease?’ it opened the doors to increased compassion and examination of addiction disorder in a different light.

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Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

Disease is considered a departure from normal functioning within the bodily processes. When substance abuse was relegated as a symptom of a character defect, it wasn’t even on the radar that it could be connected to physiological differences. As a result, treatments were based on the existing knowledge of the time. Consequently, people battling addiction were often treated as criminals and shamed rather than approached with the compassion one would receive as someone with an illness. Treatment based around shame and character defamation only serves to reinforce the problem.

People struggling with addiction disorder carry enough guilt and shame about the impact of their illness without additional social stigma. The isolation and secrecy of people dealing with addiction often resulted in relapse, as proper support methods were often unavailable. Science began exploring addiction as an illness in the 1950s, but it wasn’t officially designated as a disease until 1987. It wouldn’t be until much later that neuroscience began exploring addiction specifically as a brain disorder. Addiction is considered a brain disease because of the changes it creates within the circuitry of the brain that impact decision making, dampens access to pleasure and alters executive functioning skills. These changes in circuitry influence people’s ability to abstain from use. The rewards center of the brain is impacted and altered by the presence of substances; deprivation of those rewards within the brain circuitry results in physical and emotional discomfort which drives people back to using substances. Fortunately, these are treatable neurobiological changes. With the ability to identify addiction disorder as a disease, treatment options are more diverse and range from biological interventions to coordinated mental health supports. Addiction is a widespread condition. The expanded view of addiction disorder as a disease process serves to legitimize treatment as a medical treatment model, which reduces stigma.

Mental health and Substance Abuse Conditions

Co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders are common. As people seek treatment options for these conditions, it is often useful to explore the links between mental health and substance abuse, as they generally influence one another simultaneously. Challenges such as depression, trauma history and anxiety are often co-existing conditions for people with an addiction disorder. Emotional pain is extremely difficult to tolerate, and people who are prone to addiction are particularly vulnerable to self-medicating to reduce the discomfort.

As drug and alcohol addiction is increasingly being identified in terms of disorders of the brain, it bodes well for co-occurring treatments. The link between genetics and mental health conditions, combined with the circuitry changes associated with addiction disorders provides a practical platform to examine treatment options. Genetics research offers a lot of promise for mental health and addiction care. The top four genetically linked substance addictions are cocaine, opiates, caffeine, and alcohol. This means that if someone within your family has an addiction to one of these substances, there is a greater likelihood that you could be prone to the same type of addiction if exposed. Mental health conditions that are often genetically linked include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As effective treatments for co-occurring mental health and substance abuse conditions are recognized, the genetics and brain-circuitry changes that impact these conditions will continue to be an important factor.

Treatment is Available

Substance use disorder is a treatable condition and help is available. Valley Behavioral Health offers supportive and professional treatment for people experiencing challenges with substance abuse and mental health. The comprehensive care people receive through Valley Behavioral Health provides a strong base for long-term recovery. People who receive services through a recovery center are treated with compassion and the understanding that addiction is a complex disorder of the brain that has a lasting physiological and emotional impact. People struggling with addiction need support and services that are up to date with scientific findings.
We strive to provide treatment options that are informed by best practices and evidence-based findings. Our treatment therapists are committed to offering the right services at the right time, and this is guided by individuals’ unique treatment needs.

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NIDA. “What Does It Mean When We Call Addiction a Brain Disorder?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, March 23, 2018.
Live Science. “Addiction Now Defined As Brain Disorder, Not Behavior Problem.” August 15, 2011.
Bettindardi-Angres, K, MS, RN, APN, CADC, Angres, D.H., MD. “Understanding the Disease of Addiction.” Journal of Nursing Regulation, Vol. 1, Issue 2.
Ciulla, Anna. “How Addiction is a Brain Disorder.” Mental Health First Aid, November 8, 2017. Accessed February 6, 2020.
Crane, M., BS, Wagener, D., MA. “Genes of Substance Abuse and Addiction.”, November 4, 2019.
Whiteman, Honor. “Mental disorders linked by genetic traits.” Medical News Today, August 14, 2013.

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