The last time I heard about addiction, I was sitting in a high school classroom being taught the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. I haven’t given much thought to it until recently when a family member of mine was hospitalized by a disease that was directly related to their cigarette addiction. Tobacco products are in my opinion an entirely separate topic of conversation. None the less, I couldn’t stop thinking about how addiction is so infrequently discussed in the news today. I’m sure we’re all familiar with Truth campaigns like this one:
(No matter what, it’s always worse when they involve the animals.) Aside from these occasional ads, I haven’t seen any other organizations actively trying to expose drug or alcohol related issues. Every once in a while on the news, there’s a piece on some new synthetic, and it’s usually “how they work/where they came from”, but the conversation is rarely about addiction.
Given the lack of coverage, I have never had the impression that there is a U.S “addiction problem”; however, in light of recent events, I ventured down the rabbit hole and discovered some interesting and shocking information.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), a non-profit organization, leads the science-based addiction research and collection of addiction statistics in the United States. The experiments are usually presented in a not so easy to digest scientific report. Luckily, CASA has a web page with the scientific jargon cut out and the facts up front.
When I came upon the CASA addiction webpage, the first thing that caught my attention was a big question asking me -
The first thing that popped into my head was lack of self control. I imagined someone who had become involved with substance, and developed a dependency – a consequence of repeated and risky behavior.
Now I would like to ask:
“How do YOU define addiction?”
CASA defines addiction as the following.
“Addiction is a complex disease, often chronic in nature, which affects the functioning of the brain and body. It also causes serious damage to families, relationships, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods. The most common symptoms of addiction are severe loss of control, continued use despite serious consequences, preoccupation with using, failed attempts to quit, tolerance and withdrawal. Addiction can be effectively prevented, treated and managed by healthcare professionals in combination with family or peer support.” – CASA
So I didn’t have it completely wrong, but I did. Addiction is a disease. Perhaps this lack of understanding is part of why there is no light shed on the fact that 40 million (1 in 7) people in the U.S. ages 12 and older abuse or are addicted to nicotine alcohol or other drugs. This is nearly double the amount of people who suffer from heart conditions, diabetes, or cancer.
Look again and notice that the statistic includes middle school aged children. Interestingly enough, 25% of Americans under 18 who start using substances are addicted and 9 out of 10 people with addiction started using substances before the age of 18. There is a clear correlation between youth abusing substances and later developing lasting addictions.
The first step necessary to solving the problem, as is often times the case with addiction itself, is to recognize that there is a problem. It is scientifically supported that addiction is more prevalent than some of our most focused on diseases in the U.S., and that it deserves the same amount of attention.
Perhaps we don’t see it as a problem, because our definition of addiction is rooted in the way that addicts are often times portrayed as opposed to the scientific reality of it.
A survey actually proved the prevalence of this misconception when it revealed that 1/3 of Americans still regard addiction as a “…lack of will power or self-control.” Another statistic shows that 47% of Americans would turn to a health professional for help with addiction, but <6% of referrals to treatment come from health professionals, suggesting that there is a lack of communication and recognition as to what addiction is, even among health professionals.
Addiction is a disease and it needs to be handled as such. Without recognition, there are no referrals, and without referrals, there are fewer people getting treatment. It is crucial to remember that substances create chemical dependencies, and drain self control. We shouldn’t blame addicts for not having will-power, but rather understanding that they are suffering from a substance-induced disease, which should be treated under recommendation by an informed healthcare professional.