New Study Says Calling Addiction a "Disease" Makes People Less Likely to Seek Help

It made people feel like they had "less agency."

When people say that "addiction is a disease," the goal is to encourage sympathy towards people with substance abuse issues, as well as to educate those who don't understand why someone simply can't stop drinking. But, according to a new study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, describing addiction as a disease can have the surprising and unintended effect of making people who struggle with addiction less likely to seek help.

For their research, psychology professors from North Carolina State University divided more than 200 men and women with substance abuse issues into two groups. About half of them were given the message that addiction was a "disease" and told how it physically alters their brain chemistry over time. The other half was given a "growth mindset message" that emphasized that a variety of factors can contribute to addiction and that there are several ways to combat it.

"We wanted to see if an alternative message aimed at changing that mindset could affect how people with substance-use problems viewed themselves with regard to addiction," Jeni Burnette, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University and co-author of the study, said in a press release.

The researchers found that those given the "growth mindset message" seemed to feel more confident about their ability to beat their addiction and more likely to seek treatment than those who were instructed to think of it as a disease.

"When we began talking about addiction as a disease, the goal was to decrease stigma and encourage treatment," said Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of the study. "That worked, to an extent, but an unforeseen byproduct was that some people experiencing addiction felt like they had less agency; people with diseases have no control over them."

It seems that if someone thinks of their addiction as an incurable illness, they may be more inclined to think that it's just something they are going to have to live with, as opposed to an obstacle that—however enormous—they can overcome.

According to Desmarais, these findings are "good news" and will be useful to specialists in addiction therapy. The results of the study are also beneficial to those who know someone struggling with an addiction and don't know what to say—or what not to say—to be most helpful.

"Overall, our findings support moving away from messaging about addiction solely as a disease," Desmarais said. "It's more complicated than that. Instead, the finding suggests that it would be more helpful to talk about the many different reasons people become addicted." And for more on how to help those in crisis, read People Who Use These Words May Suffer From Depression.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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