Should addiction be treated as a mental health disorder?

As our cultural understanding of mental health issues increases, there is progress in how we respond to them in society. Workplaces are becoming more aware and sensitive to mental health. Celebrities are openly sharing their personal experiences. It is even becoming increasingly safe to raise your hand and say: “I am struggling”. 

Addiction is classified as a mental health disorder. But is the same offer of compassion and understanding extended to those applying for alcohol rehab as it is to people with other kinds of mental health disorders?

Is addiction a mental health issue?

In short, yes. It is. Addiction is a coping mechanism for overwhelming feelings such as depression, anxiety, trauma or difficult memories, relationship difficulties or any other set of challenging circumstances. People develop coping mechanisms to manage difficult feelings, and a lot of the time, coping mechanisms are healthy. We all have our ways to cope with life’s challenges and ease tension. Some people, however, develop unhealthy coping mechanisms – that is, a set of behaviours that help with the immediate feelings but cause harm in the immediate or long term. 

How does addiction develop?

Addiction starts as a psychological dependency, such as feeling as if you need alcohol to socialise or be creative. After a time, many substances change your neurochemistry and the ‘wiring’ of your brain. Substances that cause a release of dopamine (such as alcohol and illicit drugs) activate the reward centre of the brain, which makes you feel really good. Over time, your brain becomes accustomed to that feeling, so you need to increase the substance dosage to feel the same effect as you did the first time. People build more tolerance with each hit, which can lead to substance abuse. Cravings develop when you physically need to take the substance, even if you want to stop; this is otherwise known as addiction.

How is mental health changing?

Jason Shiers of WWC says “Many companies now have mental health policies and provide counselling services to their staff.” Schools are much more aware and open to children’s mental health. Culturally, the times are changing. People in positions of authority, power and celebrity status are opening up more about their personal experiences, and it is becoming increasingly acceptable to speak about past or present mental health issues. This is a good thing! But addiction carries a heavy stigma, and it is not clear if that stigma is changing as quickly as the stereotypes and ideas around other kinds of mental health diagnoses. As a society, we need to start thinking about ways to challenge stereotypes and educate people about what addiction is like to live with and recover from.

How do people view addiction?

In popular culture, films often depict addiction as dark and frightening; it possesses the person and doesn’t let go. Worse still, some films and books glamourise addiction, celebrate the chaotic hedonistic lifestyle and portray it as exciting and ‘cool’. This also gives an unrealistic picture of what addiction is like to live with. We don’t often hear about the ordinary people who struggle with an addiction, get treatment and successfully build back their lives. Success stories are not quite as glamorous, so we don’t see as many of them. It is much more common than people realise for people to make a full recovery from alcohol or drug addiction with the right help and support.

What can we do?

We need to find ways to break open the cultural taboo around addiction and expose some myths and conventions. Real people with real stories must start to share their experiences and show people that addiction can be treated and people can live healthy, fulfilled lives after addiction. Addiction is not cool, but nor need it be the end of the person’s life. Many people make full recoveries, and we don’t see enough of that.

Addiction is very stigmatised, and this may be because stereotypes and myths around addiction remain unchallenged. As a result, addiction is not afforded the same inclusivity and sensitivity that other mental health issues may receive. The more we can do to break down these stereotypes and show that addiction can be treated, the less frightening addiction seems, and the more open society can be towards supporting rather than labelling and stigmatising.

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Christophe Rude

Christophe Rude

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