Is Alcoholism a Disease?

Alcoholism has many of the same characteristics as a chronic disease – it is progressive, long lasting, resistant to treatment and can be fatal in its advanced stages. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcoholism is a form of illness characterized by a “mental obsession” that creates a powerful compulsion to drink alcohol even in the face of physical and mental decline directly related to drinking.

A More Enlightened View

Unpleasant as it may seem to consider alcoholism as a disease, it is actually a more enlightened view of alcoholism than was common in the past. People used to think of alcoholism as primarily a character issue. It was felt that those who drank too much were simply weak and irresponsible people who lacked the discipline to control their drinking. However, scientists and social workers who actually observed and interacted with alcoholics were often struck by how passionately people with drinking problems wanted to stop. Despite this desire to quit, most alcoholics seemed unable to do so for more than short periods. Far from being an issue of poor character, alcoholism appeared to be a mental and physical disorder very similar to any other long term illness.

New Treatments

When alcoholism was regarded as a character flaw, the only treatment most alcoholics received was scolding criticism from family and friends to “straighten out” and “get a grip” on their drinking. Often they were asked, “Why can’t you just moderate your drinking and stop before you drink too much?” Such nagging created feelings of guilt and shame in the alcoholic, but rarely did it enable them to actually stop drinking. However, once people began understanding alcoholism as a disease, they were able to move beyond scolding and criticizing to begin developing treatments for alcoholism that actually work.

AA Leads the Way

The realization that alcoholism is a disease became widespread largely thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, whose founders relied heavily on the disease model to develop their own treatment methods. AA worked to promote a greater tolerance towards alcoholics as people in need of help, rather than as moral degenerates. A social climate of condemnation for the alcoholic has been gradually replaced with one of understanding and the desire to help.

Critics of the Disease Model

While virtually no one advocates a return to the harsh and counterproductive condemnation of alcoholism of the past, not every person in the alcohol recovery field is comfortable with the disease model. Some people point out that there are ways in which alcoholism is not like a disease. For example, there is no alcoholic germ or virus or other physical invasion that we typically associate with diseases. Others have argued that viewing alcoholism as a disease lets the alcoholic off the hook as far taking responsibility for their own behavior because they can say, “I couldn’t help it; I have a disease.” Such critics, however, are in a minority, with the disease model of alcoholism overwhelmingly predominant.

Treatment is What is Important

But does it really matter whether one views alcoholism as a disease or not? Most experts agree that what is most important is to focus on getting the alcoholic into some kind of treatment program as soon as possible. What kind of treatment will work varies from person to person, but starting the process of addressing the problem is what matters most. It doesn’t matter whether you consider alcoholism to be caused by a disease or something else. Treatment does work, so getting the alcoholic the help they need is more important than fighting over definitions. Get help today.

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