Does The Disease Model Of Addiction Empower People To Get Help?

By Victoria Kim 06/03/19

A new study examined whether the messaging that addiction is a disease made people more or less likely to get help. 

woman with addiction getting help from a therapist

New research compared how differing approaches to substance use disorder affect how a person manages their addiction.

For the study, 214 participants with substance use disorder were placed into one of two groups—a group that was exposed to a “growth mindset” and a group that was exposed to messaging that emphasized addiction as a disease.

“The growth mindset message stresses that human attributes are malleable, and we know from previous work that it encourages better self-regulatory strategies such as seeking help from others,” said Jeni Burnette, associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and first author of the paper published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 

The growth mindset group read an article that explained the various roots of substance abuse and emphasized that there are multiple pathways to recovery, while the disease mindset group read an article that explained the effects of addiction on the brain.

After reading the articles, members of each group completed a survey asking them about their approach to dealing with their addiction.

The findings suggest that the disease messaging limited the participants’ approach to managing their addiction, while the growth mindset made participants feel more empowered to handle their substance use problem.

The growth mindset group reported feeling more confident in dealing with their problem, and reported “stronger intentions” to seek counseling or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

“When we began talking about addiction as a disease, the goal was to decrease stigma and encourage treatment,” said Sarah Desmarais, associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the paper. “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.”

The study found no difference between the groups when it came to how much they blamed themselves or whether they would seek medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

“It’s promising to see the growth mindset group express a greater willingness to seek treatment via counseling or cognitive-behavioral therapy,” said Desmarais. “And the lack of difference between groups on medication treatment is also good news, because it reflects the fact that both groups equally appreciate the medical aspects of addiction.”

The authors conclude that their findings support “moving away from messaging about addiction solely as a disease.”

“It’s more complicated than that,” said Desmarais. “Instead, the finding suggests that it would be more helpful to talk about the many different reasons people become addicted.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr