Addiction Myths & Facts

One in four Pennsylvania families is struggling with a loved one’s alcohol or drug-related problem. That makes substance use disorders among the most common health problems in the state. However, due to outdated information about these disorders, many of those affected do not take advantage of treatment and recovery support services.

As we enter the 21st century, our understanding of alcohol and drug-related problems has advanced considerably, thanks to modern scientific research and advances in treatment and prevention. Addiction Science: From Molecules to Managed Care, a 2008 publication by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), provides a summary of recent scientific discoveries about substance use disorders. Read on to discover how this research dispels five common myths about alcohol and drug-related problems.

MYTH #1: Alcohol and drug-related problems are the result of moral weakness.

FACT: Pennsylvania’s own Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the first to identify addiction as a disease. Like other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and hypertension, alcohol and drug disease develops as the result of multiple factors. An individual’s vulnerability to developing a substance use disorder involves complex interactions between biology/genes, environment, and age. For example, studies have shown that 40-60% of predisposition to addiction can be attributed to genetics. Environmental factors that can contribute to substance abuse and addiction include stress, a history of trauma or mental illness, and the availability of and exposure to substances. Research also tells us that addiction is a developmental disease that usually begins in adolescence or young adulthood, although a combination of factors can also contribute to the development of a substance use disorder later in adulthood.  While individuals suffering from the disease of addiction may engage in behaviors that are out of character, this is a symptom of the disease, not a causal factor.

MYTH #2: People who struggle with alcohol and drug-related problems just lack willpower.

FACT: Although the behaviors associated with addiction may appear to be conscious and deliberate, they are often driven by changes to the brain that are caused by the use of alcohol and drugs. Different substances can alter the structure of neurons, change dopamine receptors, and compromise memory and motor function. These changes in neurochemistry can place an individual’s ability to stop drinking or using drugs beyond the scope of willpower. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for people with substance use disorders to take advantage of treatment and recovery support services.

MYTH #3: The fact that people relapse shows that treatment doesn’t work.

FACT: Relapse rates for addiction are similar to those of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension. Like these other chronic diseases, addiction often requires continued management that addresses both biological and behavioral components. Relapse can signal a need for treatment readjustment or reinstatement. New research has shown that it is possible for the brain to recover from the effects of substance use disorders. While all chronic diseases have their challenges, people who are in recovery from substance use disorders can live full lives and make rich contributions in society.

MYTH #4: A person must “hit rock bottom” before treatment will be effective for them.

FACT: As with treatment for many other chronic diseases, earlier intervention and treatment for substance use disorders has higher success rates, and is less costly. Research has shown that the most effective treatment is individualized; readily available; long-term; and addresses the multiple, complex needs of the individual, not just the substance use disorder.

MYTH #5: There is a point at which a person struggling with dependence on alcohol or drugs is “beyond help.”

FACT: The take-home message of the latest research on substance use disorders is that there is hope, and recovery is possible. The power of science is being brought to bear on the development of treatments for alcohol and drug-related problems. Recent advancements include new medications, behavioral interventions, whole-patient treatment models and approaches to prevention that promise better tools and additional pathways to recovery for individuals, families and communities.

Pennsylvania has one of the strongest networks of treatment providers in the nation. The PA Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs is committed to supporting all Pennsylvanians who are in search of treatment and recovery support services for alcohol and drug-related problems. On this website, you will find links to specific tools designed to help individuals, families and communities connect with treatment and prevention resources. Use the navigation bar on the left to find specific information on the topics most relevant to you and your family.

(Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, 2015)