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Addiction Myths


There are few health issues that carry the same degree of shame and falsehoods than does addiction.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of these myths help perpetuate discrimination, stereotypes and misinformation, which are then applied to public health policy decisions and improperly ‘inform’ our understanding of addiction and those who suffer from the condition.

It is our hope that the dispelling of such addiction myths will help provide a fuller and more accurate discussion of this widespread and destructive health issue.

MYTH: Addiction is a choice.

While we all make decisions in our lives, some healthy and some less so (consider nutrition and exercise – or lack thereof), nobody chooses to become addicted. Rather, drug addiction is often about fulfilling an unmet need and wanting to feel ‘normal’ (e.g., to increase pleasure and/or reduce emotional or physical pain). Ultimately, reasons for use will vary and may change over time, but nobody sets out to be ‘addicted’ and to experience all the pain and suffering that accompanies this health issue.

MYTH: Addiction is a sign of a character flaw and moral failing.

People who use drugs are not ‘bad’ people. Consider for a moment how ‘addicts’ are negatively portrayed in pop culture and then decide if this same description is an adequate fit for your child, sibling, friends and extended family members who may suffer from addiction. Addiction is no more a reflection of one’s character than is cancer or heart disease. Ultimately, these individuals are ‘worthy’ and require our help and support and not our ridicule and judgment.

MYTH: Lack of treatment success means the person was unmotivated.

Although commonly stated in many treatment environments, this is what the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach refers to as an example of a “Dead End” explanation. That is, this ‘excuse’ offers very little hope or options to productively move forward. It is also inaccurate in that it is virtually impossible to find someone who is completely unmotivated – these individuals simply may not be motivated for what others want them to be motivated for (e.g., treatment). It is for these reasons that it is incredibly important that our interventions focus on the individual and his/her needs and personal reinforcers and not our own.

MYTH: Reaching “rock bottom” is a prerequisite for treatment success.

When does someone know they have reached rock bottom? Ultimately, this status is unpredictable, can vary drastically from one person to the next and, tragically, ‘rock bottom’ for some could mean death. Therefore, we should not wait to intervene as there are always things that clients and/or family members can do to help reduce the experienced harms, improve quality of life and facilitate considerations for recovery (however that is personally defined).

MYTH: Abstinence is the only legitimate goal

Harm reduction philosophy and approaches are critically important elements of our ideal collective response to addiction (e.g., methadone, supervised injection sites, reduction goals, etc.). While ‘abstinence for all’ may be the ideal, it is not realistic, and our health policies, laws and interventions should be based on reality and science and not on mythology.

MYTH: Treatment does NOT work!

In fact treatment DOES work! Especially when the treatment program is based upon available clinical research and best practices. When compared to other conditions that tend to involve relapse, long-term outcomes for those receiving addiction treatment are very positive. And not only does effective treatment directly help those individuals and families in need, but it is a worthwhile community investment as well. In Ontario alone, it is estimated that every dollar spent to treat substance abuse results in a savings of $4 to $7 in health care alone [2]! This does not even include criminal justice or lost productivity expenditures, nor the human costs – which are immeasurable.

[1] The noted myths have been identified and communicated through the work of many at the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre as well as through external professional resources such as the work of Dr. Gabor Mate.

[2] Auditor General of Ontario. Annual Report 2008

Download the Annual Report