Addiction: The Medical and Mental Health Perspective

What is "addiction"? The word has many definitions and triggers different emotions, experiences and conditions. Learn more about how physicians and substance abuse counselors categorize different types of addiction and how you can recognize it in a loved one.

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How to Recognize a Secret Addiction (2:21)

Addiction is a deadly disease. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic, neurobiologic disease, with genetic, psychosocial and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations.” Those who are addicted to a substance (like alcohol, prescription drugs or street drugs) or to an activity (like gambling or shopping) tend to partake in neurologically programmed behaviors that demonstrate a lack of control, constant cravings, and continued use despite dire consequences.

Some addictions are more deadly than others. While one may be addicted to the caffeine in a cup of coffee, another may be addicted to potentially dangerous substances like alcohol or heroin.

Addiction is more common than you think: 8% of all adults in the US have had some form of substance use disorder or addiction in the past 12 months.

Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)

While the word addiction is commonly used, many physicians and counselors prefer to avoid using this word, as it may have negative connotations for their patients. Instead, many say “substance use disorder” (SUD), which includes both “substance abuse” and “substance dependence.” Both substance abuse and dependence have specific criteria for diagnosis.

To have substance abuse, one must:

  • Consistently fail to fulfill major duties at work or school because of intoxication from the substance (not showing up or performing very poorly)
  • Use and reuse the substance in potentially hazardous situations (drinking and driving)
  • Get into recurring legal troubles (arrests or jail time)
  • Or continue using the substance despite recurring conflicts with family or friends.