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Stop Telling Substance-Abuse Patients Addiction Is a Disease

New research finds the movement to de-stigmatize addiction by calling it a disease actually has had the opposite intended effect.

The movement to label addiction as a disease might be backfiring.

When individuals with substance-abuse problems hear that addiction is a disease, they are less likely to seek treatment than users told that addiction behaviors can be changed, according to a new study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

What Did the Study Find?

The original goal of calling addiction a disease was to decrease the stigma and encourage treatment, North Carolina State University associate psychology professor Sarah Desmarais, Ph.D., co-author of a research paper, said in a statement.

“That worked, to an extent,” she added. “But an unforeseen byproduct was that some people experiencing addiction felt like they had less agency; people with diseases have no control over them.”

The study enrolled more than 200 men and women who screened positive for substance-use problems. Of the participants, 124 encountered the “growth mindset” message that described various factors that can contribute to substance abuse and focused on how people can address their substance abuse issues. The other 90 participants heard the message, “Addiction is a disease.”

Then the participants took a survey addressing whether they felt they could change their substance abuse and their confidence in their ability to address the problem.

The authors described their method: “We crafted a message about addiction designed to induce the belief in the potential to change without influencing self-blame and compared it to a message focused on the fixed underpinnings of addiction.”

The researchers found that the participants with the growth-mindset message reported more confidence in their ability to handle their addiction than those with the disease message. The former group also reported a greater likelihood of seeking cognitive behavioral therapy or counseling than the latter. There was no difference between the two groups regarding their views on seeking pharmacological treatment.

What Do the Findings Suggest for Healthcare Providers?

The research study findings should change communication efforts for addiction in the future, Dr. Desmarais says, because people with substance abuse problems need to feel that treatment is possible and effective.

“It is important to acknowledge that there is a physiological component to addiction,” she says. “But there are other things going on that can be causing it, too, and they can have control over these things.”

Dr. Desmarais added, “We have found that not just labeling it a disease but talking about the many different reasons that people get involved in drugs and alcohol is helpful. When people hear that it is a disease and that they have this disease, it can actually be disempowering. People can feel hopeless and like they can’t change.”

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