Friday, 5 November 2010

Disease or delinquency?

(October 2010)

If I could wave a magic wand and invent a cure for any disease, I would choose addiction.

While choice may be a driving factor in the early stages of abuse, there is no denying that once addiction takes hold, its victim is powerless against the disease’s urges and requires substantial treatment and time to recover. Research has shown that alterations in brain chemistry take place in sufferers of addiction, suggesting that it is as much a mental illness as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

The causes, like the disease, are complex and misunderstood. A combination of genetic predisposition and personal and social environment can bring about dependence. The myriad of causes means that each individual case is unique, thus requiring unique treatment. The benefits of these are often unclear and unquantifiable, perpetuating the difficulty in curing the disease. Current treatments for addiction include behavioural therapies, medication, counselling and a combination of these. However, a huge number of addicts will not seek treatment for fear of either criminal or social marginalisation.

The sufferer’s mind and body can be torn apart. Addicts may develop other psychiatric conditions, liver disease, lung cancer or malnutrition. They may turn to crime to fund their addiction. A drug-addicted mother may impose irrevocable harm to an unborn baby.
The lives of their family and friends are destroyed, too. An addict’s personality can change drastically, causing intense upset for those around them. As well as emotional turmoil, families of addicts are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, migraines and heart problems.

It is estimated that there are 320,000 drug addicts in the UK, 10 million smokers and 1.6m alcoholics – only one in thirteen of which seek treatment for their alcohol dependence. This represents approximately 12 million addicts and does not even account for the numbers addicted to activities such as gambling, sex and crime.

The societal impact of addiction can be felt through crimes such as theft and prostitution (to fund an addiction) and the violence that can accompany alcoholism. The British Medical Association estimates that 70% of domestic violence murders are alcohol related. Addiction, in part, fuels drug trafficking that brings with it its own spectrum of damage.

Alcohol dependence costs the NHS £2.7 billion each year; drug addiction costing £16 billion per annum. The charity Addaction has calculated that over the ten years 1998-2008, drug-related crime has cost the UK £100 billion. Then there are the costs of benefits that may be claimed by sufferers if they are unable to find or keep employment.

Regardless of whether one thinks addiction is a disease or a choice, a medical cure for addiction would, most importantly, alleviate the personal and social problems associated with it. It would also drastically reduce the financial costs imposed each year on taxpayers and governments. The quality of life of the millions addicts would increase immeasurably, but so too would the quality of life of the millions more around them.

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