We are happy to report that Drug Abuse Intervention programs are becoming more enlightened. It wasn’t all that long ago that drug use was widely stigmatized as largely a character defect or moral failing. However, new attitudes are emerging that recognize more complex underpinnings, such as can be seen in a guide for a medically supervised detox.

At the point where the above guide describes the evaluation process, it indicates that it is now common to look for “co-occurring mental and physical conditions that may be at the root of the addict’s drug use.” Since even street drugs can have medicinal uses, it should come as no surprise that many addicts are using drugs as a means to self medicate for some other condition. Obviously, finding out what that condition may be and determining an appropriate course of treatment for it plays a critical role in finally breaking the cycle of addiction.

Think of it this way: If you had pneumonia and wanted antibiotics, no one would tell you that you had a character defect or you just needed to man up and resist temptation. But that is very often what we do with addicts, sometimes in cases where it is known that they have some kind of underlying condition.

In cases where addicts are self medicating for a condition, it simply makes no sense to act like they just need to try harder. When you are physically ill, having strength of character does not magically cure you of what ails you. In part because addiction typically has roots in other conditions, it also won’t magically cure you of an addiction. Identifying the underlying root causes of drug use is a much more pragmatic, sane and humane approach to old fashioned accusations of moral failing.

Drug addiction is typically a hard problem to resolve, even in cases where the addict very much wants to stop using. Some people try repeatedly to get clean and sober, yet keep falling off the wagon. This strongly implies that there is some underlying problem that is not being adequately addressed.

The sooner society as a whole can begin to routinely think of addiction as a symptom of underlying problems and focus on solving those problems, the better. Once this is the default mental model of addiction, the world will be a better place. The growing trend towards embracing such views is a step in the right direction, one that will help remove some of the shame and stigma from addiction. Shame and stigma not only fail to adequately motivate addicts to stop on their own, these strong negative feelings of social judgement actively prevent people for asking for the help they need. And that is a real shame.

Some addicts know what condition they have for which they are self medicating with street drugs. In some cases, people with certain conditions prefer to use such drugs to treat a known condition because the side effects of the prescription drugs they have previously tried were simply intolerable. In such cases, it may be fairly obvious that doctors need to work at finding an acceptable treatment regimen for the patient’s previously established ailment.

In other cases, people do not already have a known underlying condition on record. However, not knowing what the condition is, or even not knowing that you have a condition, and, thus, your drug use is actually an act of self medicating, does not change the fact that this is likely going on in most cases. In cases where no underlying condition has been previously identified, finally getting the patient a proper diagnosis can be incredibly freeing and empowering.

For people who have long been accused of being merely lazy or otherwise morally defective, having a proper name for a real condition can be life changing in the most wonderful way imaginable. It can open doors to solving the stubborn underlying problems out of which addiction so very often grows.

This can be not only a positive experience for the addict, it can also be wonderful news for loyal family members who are at their wit’s end. The revelation that a loved one has a real problem, rather than that they are a real problem, can go a long way towards mending broken hearts and broken relationships. The trail of devastation laid out behind them can be paved over and turned into a path forward, for the individual suffering from addiction and the family members and friends suffering alongside.