Time with court shows addiction is like any illness
For the Nevada Appeal
For the last three years I have had the pleasure of consulting to a court program in Reno that works with people struggling with mental illness as well as drug or alcohol addiction. When I use the word “pleasure” to describe this work, people always respond with, “Pleasure?! Are you crazy?!”
As a psychologist in private practice, I was a bit “green” when I began working with this court population — many of whom have been arrested 10, 30 and even 50 times. What I didn’t realize three years ago is that I had certain beliefs about people struggling with addictions. So even though I had plenty of empathy and knowledge about mental illness, I didn’t really think of addiction as an illness. Like many, I couldn’t understand it.
As I have walked the walk of recovery now with about 90 incredible human beings, I have come to understand what scientific research is showing: That addiction is as much a disease as is mental illness, cancer and diabetes.
Emerging research indicates that those who later become addicted to drugs and alcohol have different brains at birth than those who don’t. Those who become addicted also have variations in several chemicals in the body. These genetic predispositions likely are inherited, like in any disease. So, if 10 teenagers smoke marijuana for a while, nine will be OK eventually. The one who becomes addicted has a brain that is wired differently.
Nine out of 10 people with addictions began using drugs or alcohol before they were 18. Those who get to age 21 without ever using have less than a 1 percent chance of becoming an addict. Why? Right when teens begin to experiment with drugs and alcohol is right when the impulsive and pleasure-seeking part of their brain is in full swing. The pleasure centers are growing faster than the parts of the brain that regulate self-control. Of course, all of this is happening during adolescence, a stressful time of life when drugs and alcohol can help youth feel more comfortable in their skin. For the addict, substance use becomes their way of coping as they mature.
Parents aren’t educated about what to look for in their children: withdrawal, lower grades, change in friends, pupil dilation, seeming drunk or stoned, change in attitude, lying and stealing.
Certain experiences put people at risk, too. Ninety percent of people who become addicted have experienced extreme stress, have had trauma or have a mild or severe mental illness. Those with the most problematic drug use likely have some combination of the “perfect storm”: a genetic predisposition, extreme stress, experiences of trauma, mental illness and use at an early age.
It might be easy to believe this court program population is a certain part of our social society that we are not part of, so we and our loved ones are safe. Unfortunately, addiction is growing at every income level and in every race. Prescription drug use among upper-middle-class, white males is skyrocketing.
Addiction is one of the chief epidemics our generation faces. Our growing knowledge is pushing us to develop a public health perspective to deal with this epidemic. We are beginning to understand what the cure is: prevention and treatment. Just like every illness.
If someone you care about has cancer, you send them to the doctor immediately. If they don’t go, you take them. You know it is a lifelong illness and the survivor will have to treat it as such. You get support for yourself too. The illness of addiction is just the same.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.