Saturday, June 06, 2009

Is Addiction a Disease or a Choice?

View Julie Christiansen's profile on LinkedInThis just in - MacLean's Magazine ( - page 19, Charlie Gillis interviews Harvard psycholgist, Gene Heyman on why drug or alcohol addiction is not a disease, but a matter of choice.

Heyman's findings are not really so earth shattering as we might think at first glance. I find it interesting that he began by reviewing existing research and just looked at it from a new perspective - with fresh eyes so to speak. He says in the interview that his initial goal was to learn how drug use morphed from voluntary behaviour to involuntary, but what he found was that addicted people, "stopped using the drugs... because of family issues, or there was a choice between their children and continued drug use, or they were moving on to an environment where it was disapproved of. In other words, the kinds of things that influence all of our everyday decisions were influencing people ... to stop using."

Heyman says that behavioural disease is marked by compulsivity, meaning it is "beyond the influence of reward, punishment, expectations, cultural values, personal values." He says that the epidemiological evidence more strongly supports addictive behaviour as a choice as opposed to disease as described above.

I love what he says when asked about the billions of dollars spent annually, trying to treat the "disease" of addiction. He says, "It's possible that the reason we're not making much progress is that we're not treating decision-making directly." This is so key to all behaviour change in my mind! And this is what we talk about in Anger Solutions ( all the time... that the secret to producing lasting, radical change in people with "anger issues" lies in teaching them a better decision-making model that will help them to choose behaviours that will get them the best short and long-term outcomes regardless of who or what caused them to feel angry.

Heyman's argument lends scientific support to some of the amazing outcomes we have seen in Anger Solutions when it is applied to individuals who are struggling with anger and addictions, who after completing the program found that they no longer needed or wanted to abuse alcohol or drugs - either because they had better coping strategies and methods for expressing their anger, or because the emotional intensity had subsided to the point where they no longer felt the need to self-medicate with substances like drugs or alcohol.

I urge you to get the June 1st issue of MacLean's magazine and read this article for yourself. I believe you will find the implications in Heyman's message incredibly empowering.