Surgeon General upgrades definition—sparks new perspective.

Addiction treatment has come a long way from its earliest roots in both effective options and societal attitudes. Once thought of as a sinful overindulgence reflecting a lack of self-control and discipline—a moral failure or corruption on the part of the user—is now largely understood as a progressive and degenerative disease crossing every societal boundary.

Over 20 million Americans suffer from a substance use disorder—similar to rates of Americans living with diabetes, and one and a half times the rate of folks struggling with cancer. However, it is estimated that only 1 in 10 will receive treatment.

Research shows that what may begin as a choice to use alcohol or illicit/prescribed drugs to feel better, or temporarily relieve stress, physical, or emotional pain, can quickly turn into a hijacking response of chemical changes in the brain—which can lead to increasingly maladaptive patterns of behavior, poor health outcomes, and an inability to fulfill social and legal obligations.

Some recent good news we should all be aware of is that for the first time ever, the office of the Surgeon General—currently occupied by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy—released a report entitled “Facing Addiction in America.” Do yourself a favor, and read this groundbreaking compilation of research, critical thinking, and evidence-based directives for how to move forward in a more impactful way within the current addiction landscape.

If the emotional and social aspects aren’t compelling enough, perhaps the realization that substance abuse disorders are estimated to cost the nation more than $420 billion per year will give you pause (or call you to action).

The Surgeon General’s report hones in and defines substance use disorder as “… an independent illness that significantly impairs health and function and may require specialty treatment. Disorders can range from mild to severe. Severe and chronic substance use disorders are commonly referred to as addictions.”

Addiction is now defined as “… the most severe form of substance use disorder, associated with compulsive or uncontrolled use of one or more substances. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that has the potential for both recurrence (relapse) and recovery.”

More Americans than ever before may find themselves reflected in the new definitions of substance misuse. In fact, more folks are misusing (i.e. binge drinking or increasing illicit drug use) than those who meet the full criteria for addiction. The challenge becomes: how does one decide when to jump off the train? Knowing that substance misuse is the precursor, and that addiction is a progressive disease, it is more important than ever to be intentional with our health and our choices—and responsive to those in our community who are suffering.

There’s a combination of responsibility here—both on the part of the addict and on us as citizens. How are we managing stress? How connected do we feel to ourselves, our families, our friends, our communities?

If strengthening these connections will lead to a healthier self, a more unified set of responses, and ultimately, a healthier population, then it’s time to begin looking more into one another’s eyes, hearts, and habits. It’s time to see addiction through a lens of evidence-based information—and build out from there with hope, compassion, and the will to make a difference.

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