Addiction is not a choice, it’s a disease: Calgary addictions expert

“Many people fail to understand that addiction is actually a secondary disease that arises from trauma of various types,” said Peter Choate, who has four decades of experience as a social worker and a PhD in addictions.

People who are traumatized often turn to substances to numb their pain – for example, alcohol or drugs – and Choate argues our response needs to be compassion, not judgement.

“Historically, we have seen people with substance abuse problems as morally deficient or weak, and there has been a historical view that they just need to make a different choice,” Choate said. “The overriding theme (in their life) becomes the moral judgement associated with having been an addict.”

He believes people with substance use disorder deserve the same standard of health care as those with depression, cardiac disease, or those who are injured in a car crash because they were distracted at the wheel.

Research backs up Choate’s main point that addiction is an issue of trauma and biology, not a choice.

According to a 2014 toolkit for trauma-informed care from Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, given that “the experience of trauma is commonly associated with substance abuse … substance use treatment providers must help people make the connections between their experience of trauma and their problematic substance use or mental health concerns.”

Dr. David Swann, co-chair of the provinces’ Mental Health Review and vocal advocate for those with substance use disorder and their families, said the stigma of addiction is alive and well in Alberta.

“Any other loss of life like this associated with another disease would have mobilized a lot more coordinated and sufficient resources,” the Alberta Liberal Party leader said, referring to the opioid crisis in Alberta that claimed 343 lives last year alone.

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Dr. Swann added the way we perceive addiction is a barrier that discourages people from coming forward with their struggles and asking for help.

“Families are going into hiding, instead of shouting from the rooftops that this is affecting all of us and we need to see a more compassionate and coordinated community response to this,” he said.

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