Approaches to Addiction: The Moral Model vs. Medical Model

Medical Model of Addiction | Just Believe Recovery

In This Article

Models of addiction typically fall into one of two different viewpoints, each of which forms the basis of two competing approaches to treatment. It is essential to distinguish between the two perspectives because although the moral model has mostly fallen out of favor among mental health providers, the stigma of alcoholism and drug abuse continues to linger.

One perspective, referred to as the moral model, considers addiction to be a moral failing based on individual choice or a lack of willpower. The second model, or the medical model, approaches addiction as a mental health disease that develops, and that no one willingly chooses to be an addict or alcoholic.

The Moral Model of Addiction

Those who favor the moral model of addiction argue that the person suffering is doing so because he or she is irresponsible, impulsive, and engages in careless behavior due to character deficits. Proponents of this theory often consider addiction an “alternative”, destructive lifestyle.

The moral model is rarely used in clinical practice today—addiction was officially declared a treatable disease in 1956 by the American Medical Association. However, the perspective may still be embraced in some religious and conservative settings.

The moral model became widespread in the first half of the 19th century, its advocates believing that alcoholism was responsible for society’s problems, or conversely, that alcoholism was borne from a movement away from a traditional family and social values.

Those who still advocate for the moral model argue that by approaching addiction from a medical perspective, we ignore or marginalize moralistic components and strip the individual of personal power. The model fails, however, to adjust for biological and social elements that so often are found to be risk factors for addiction and substance abuse.

Indeed, the idea that addiction is more or less a moral problem persists, and it may be challenging for the individual suffering and those close to him or her to view addiction as a disease.

Critically, considering substance abuse as merely a weakness of character fuels non-productive beliefs and existing stigmas associated with addiction, and minimizes the intense struggle that is required to overcome chemical dependency.

The Medical Model of Addiction

Medical Model of Addiction | Just Believe Recovery

Programs based on the medical model, conversely, purport that drug or alcohol consumption alters the person’s brain chemistry, and that use is likely a reaction to other underlying mental health problems. Substance use then exacerbates these conditions and propels a cycle that is not unlike other diseases.

Moreover, addiction dramatically hinders a person’s ability to make the right decisions and behave in ways that are conducive to a healthy life, and therefore, these individuals need effective medical treatment rather than moral judgments.

The medical model contends that excessive drug and alcohol use is the result of a myriad of factors, including biology/genetics, trauma, and adverse life experiences, personal loss, rejection, and a fear of intimacy.

For this reason, modern rehab centers seek to help individuals repair broken family and social connections, as well as treat the underlying mental health issues and negative emotions that drive people to self-medicate with substances.

While the modern medical model typically treats addiction as a pathological disorder, many advocates note that whether or not it is a disease, clinical studies have shown that treatment is most effective when addiction is approached as one.

Addiction as a Disease

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the “brain disease model of addiction is strongly supported by scientific evidence.” This view is also now held by most health agencies, addiction specialists, and researchers.

According to a study from the New England Journal of Medicine, there are three main symptoms associated with addiction:

  • Desensitization of the reward center of the brain
  • An increase in conditioned responses related to the substance of dependence
  • Declining function in brain areas responsible for decision-making and self-regulation

While the moral model fails to consider many of the psychological and social factors that contribute to addiction, the disease model recognizes the underpinnings of addiction as biological, neurological, genetic, and environmental.

Moreover, addiction is a disease, which, if left untreated, can result in severe illness and death. This is in line with the traditional model of disease, in which the patient experiences an atypical condition that can result in dysfunction and suffering. Regarding addiction, this atypical condition is believed to be the result of a genetic propensity further fueled by environmental factors.

Get Help Today

Just Believe Recovery is a specialized addiction treatment center that offers comprehensive, customized programs intended to treat each individual uniquely and from a holistic perspective. We believe that addiction is, indeed, a chronic disease, or at the very least, it is most effectively addressed when approached from this point of view.

If you or someone you love is abusing substances, we urge you to seek treatment and contact us as soon as possible. Please call us today at 888-380-0667 for a free consultation.

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