The wide acceptance of the disease concept of alcoholism has had a positive impact. Up until the early twentieth century, it was generally accepted that those who abused alcohol were just bad people who needed to learn how to behave morally. The first rehabs (known as inebriate houses) had programmes where the focus was on teaching bad alcoholics to become good people – they were not very successful. The disease concept of alcoholism has changed the way we view the condition, and it is now not accepted (even if it still happens) to believe that alcoholics are just getting what they deserve.
The Rise of the Disease Theory of Alcoholism
Alcoholics Anonymous played a huge role in the promotion of the disease theory of addiction. The 12 Steps are based on the idea that those who develop the disease need a cure in order to overcome it. The fact that neurologists have been able to detect physical changes to the brain due to alcohol abuse has further promoted the idea that alcoholism is a disease. In the US, it is officially recognised as a medical condition; and this is going to be even more so with the introduction of the Health Care Act in 2014, which lists alcoholism as one of the conditions that must be treated by health insurance. The idea of alcoholism as a disease is also widely accepted in the UK but not as strongly as is the case in the US.
It is almost certain that the disease theory has helped to remove the stigma of being addicted to alcohol. It has meant that more people are willing to admit to having this type of problem and it has made governments more willing to provide the help needed to fight the condition. When individuals are seen as having a disease, it is no longer possible to just dismiss them as bad people who are getting what they deserve. It is now getting to the stage that alcoholism is considered in a similar bracket to diabetes or heart disease – and this is how it should be.
Criticisms of the Disease Concept of Alcoholism
The classification of alcoholism as a disease also has many opponents as well. Some claim that it disempowers the individual and that there is no real evidence that it is a disease. One of the problems is that alcoholism is so unlike other types of disease. There is plenty of evidence of individuals who have been classified as alcoholic but who have managed to just stop without any real help. This does not really happen with a condition like diabetes; people don’t just decide to give up being a diabetic.
The biggest criticism against the disease model of alcoholism is the fact that it may encourage some to continue drinking. The individual may become convinced that they are unable to take control of their behaviour because they have a disease, using this as an excuse to just keep on doing what they have been doing. The idea that alcoholism is an incurable disease may also have the effect of disempowering people.
Is Alcoholism a Disease?
The question of alcohol being a disease is not an easy one to answer; it would all depend on what we mean by alcoholism and what we mean by disease. The real question should be, does thinking about alcoholism as a disease help or hinder the individual. It is obvious that in many cases, treating this condition as a disease encourages many to get help, giving them a framework for coming to terms with their condition. Others consider that thinking of alcoholism as a disease is somewhat disempowering. There might not be a right answer – it is all about whatever works for the individual.