We are living through an addiction crisis, and we have been for a long time. Addiction has always been with us, usually hidden and whispered about. Not until the 1940s did we begin to understand the nature of addiction and respond in a meaningful way. That response came by way of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and one of its contributions, among many, was a message that addiction (referring almost exclusively to alcoholism at that time) is a disease and not a failure of human willpower. 

Many decades later, the scientific community has confirmed the disease concept of addiction. The American Society of Addiction Medicine accurately defines addiction as a chronic disease, centered in the brain, with biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. We refer to it as a bio-psycho-social-spiritual disease. The monumental significance of this understanding is that we can’t treat what we do not understand, and if we perceive a disease inaccurately, then we will not treat it effectively.

Comprehensive response

We know, therefore, that addiction requires a healthcare response that is comprehensive, integrated and multifaceted. In the simplest terms, we have to treat the whole person: body, mind and spirit. Thus, when we look for addiction treatment, we must seek out complete care, including not only the new medicines that assist the recovery process, but also evidence-based practices such as counseling, group therapy, community participation and support, and life purpose and fulfillment, all of which will lead to sustained life changes.

Although we possess the knowledge and the means, the problem in our country is that we are not getting people the treatment they need.

Armed with this understanding, as well as decades of experience and research, we have developed the tools necessary to effectively treat addiction. Treatment works, if it’s done and done right. People suffering from addiction get well, and it is a beautiful thing to see, because addiction is ugly. It destroys a person‘s body, mind and spirit, and when it’s left untreated, addiction gets worse and frequently leads to death. It also tears down those around it, including family and friends. Recovery, conversely, which is the result of effective treatment, produces wellness, where individuals may regain their health and their lives.

Although we possess the knowledge and the means, the problem in our country is that we are not getting people the treatment they need. We estimate that approximately 25 million people suffer from addiction, and most do not receive dedicated addiction healthcare. Perhaps as few as 10 percent get the care they need. This is unconscionable and unlike any other disease. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of addiction healthcare insurance that, again, pales in comparison to coverage for other diseases. It is imperative, therefore, that we come together as a country to acknowledge the disease of addiction and produce the necessary healthcare and payment responses. For this to occur, we must continue to destigmatize addiction, embrace it as a treatable disease, and call for increased payment sources, specifically through the complete implementation of the federal addiction parity law. With strong political and social will, our country can make this change for addiction, just as it has for other diseases.