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Addiction is a Disease

What is Substance Use Disorder?

Commonly referred to as addiction, substance use disorder is not a behavior problem or a weakness. It’s a disease that impacts people all over our state. Neuroscientists, doctors, and other experts researching addiction all agree that it is a disease, with the American Society of Addiction Medicine categorizing it as a chronic brain disorder.

Substance Use Disorder Changes the Brain

Addiction changes the way the brain’s reward system functions, leaving people unable to control their use of illegal or legally prescribed drugs. Once this happens, it’s incredibly difficult for someone to quit using drugs, even if they may want to. As a result, living with this disease can make people feel trapped.

Substance Use Disorder is Not a Moral Issue

Addiction can begin in various ways. For some, it develops after a doctor prescribes a legal painkiller. For others, it develops after recreational use. Substance use disorder can also occur after someone experiences trauma.

No matter its onset, addiction is a disease and those living with it are suffering. Due to stigma, many people don’t understand that overcoming substance use disorder requires more than good intentions, strong willpower, or moral principles. But with the right treatment and support, people can recover from this disease and go on to live happy, healthy lives.


addiction is recognized is a disease by the American Medical Association1

addiction is classified as a chronic brain disorder by the American Society of Addiction Medicine1

number of Hoosiers struggling with a substance use disorder (nearly one in 12 Hoosiers)2

people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose3

Increasing Our Understanding

  • How does substance use change the brain?

    Substance use can greatly impact the brain, especially the reward system and the parts responsible for decision-making, memory, and learning. Over time, it can:

    1. Alter the way the brain's reward system functions, leading to a decrease in dopamine production and a reduced ability to experience pleasure from natural rewards like food or social interactions.
    2. Change the structure and function of the prefrontal cortex, which can lead to impaired judgment, impulsivity, and an increased likelihood of continuing use despite negative consequences.
    3. Affect the hippocampus, leading to impairments in cognitive function.
    4. Increase activity in the amygdala, heightening anxiety and stress.

    These changes can contribute to the development of addiction, making it difficult for someone to quit even when they want to. But with appropriate treatment and support, it’s possible to reverse some of these changes and promote brain healing and recovery.

  • Does addiction have genetic factors?

    Research shows that genetic factors can contribute to the development of addiction. Several genes have been identified that may be associated with addiction, including genes that affect the way the brain processes dopamine. Other genes have been linked to traits such as impulsivity, anxiety, and risk-taking behavior, which can increase the likelihood of addiction.

    Genetics is just one of many factors that can contribute to addiction. Environmental factors, such as stress, trauma, social influences, and the availability of drugs, also play a significant role in addiction development. Addressing addiction effectively requires a comprehensive approach that considers both genetic and environmental factors.

  • Why is willpower not enough?

    Addiction is not simply a matter of willpower or choice, but rather a complex condition that affects the brain, behavior, and physical health. Treatment and support can be critical in helping individuals overcome addiction by addressing the underlying physiological, psychological, and social factors that contribute to their addiction.

  • Why do some people say addiction is not a disease?

    The medical community widely recognizes addiction as a complex condition that requires comprehensive treatment and support to manage effectively. Still, some people argue that addiction is a choice, a behavioral problem, or a moral failing. One reason for this perspective is that addiction can be influenced by environmental and social factors, such as access to drugs, peer pressure, and socioeconomic status, which are not typically associated with medical conditions.

    Despite these opinions, the medical community recognizes addiction as a chronic disease because it meets several criteria used to define a chronic disease, including:

    1. It involves a dysfunction or abnormality in the body that leads to specific symptoms and behaviors.
    2. It has a predictable course and progression, with symptoms worsening over time if left untreated.
    3. It can be diagnosed and treated by medical professionals using evidence-based approaches.
    4. It has the potential to cause significant harm to the individual's physical, mental, and social well-being.

What You Can Do


  • Listen to the person in your life with substance use disorder. Hear their stories and struggles while withholding judgment and offering support.
  • Treat people with substance use disorder with dignity and respect.
  • Take time to learn about substance use disorder.
  • Volunteer with organizations in your community that are helping spread awareness and challenge the stigma of substance use disorder.

Man coaching little league baseball


  • Have you struggled with substance use disorder? Share your story.
  • Start a conversation with friends and loved ones about reducing the stigma around addiction.
  • Have someone in your life who has a substance use disorder? Let them know you’re here for them.
  • Do you know someone whose loved one has a substance use disorder? Share resources with them (like this website) and tell them you’re available to talk if they need support as they work through all of the emotions that come with watching a loved one suffer from this disease.


We have to change the way we talk about addiction in order to reduce the stigma. Instead of using words like “junkie” or “hooked,” use positive language that acknowledges and honors the person’s humanity. Biased and hurtful language can keep someone from seeking treatment. Changing the way we talk can make a big difference.


Friends laughing while on a walk

Friends enjoying time together


78% of Hoosiers believe substance use disorder is common in their community, but 56% of Hoosiers say they don’t personally know anyone who has the disorder4. Despite our cultural perceptions, substance use disorder can happen anywhere and you likely do know someone who struggles with it. With so many communities affected by addiction, it shouldn’t be taboo to talk about. Let’s end the stigma.

Hear Sayward's perspective

"Every person has value. But because of the stigma, they can’t be honest about their lives or what has happened to them. These are our friends and family, this is someone I went to high school with, this is my aunt, this is my child. Regardless of what they’ve done, we need to make sure we’re there for them when they’re ready to come back and be part of this community.

– Sayward, Recovery Treatment Provider


Many of the photos included on this webpage are stock or original photography featuring paid actors. These photos do not represent individuals suffering from substance use disorder or living in recovery. The exception to this are photos of people who are named and share their personal story about substance use disorder. We are grateful for these brave survivors' willingness to come forward to help reduce the stigma of substance use disorder and provide encouragement for those suffering from this chronic disease.

1. Indiana University Health. Is Addiction Really a Disease? Published November 2022.

2. Indiana University. The Crisis in Indiana: Addiction affects every aspect of Hoosier life. Publishing date not specified.

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Drug Overdose: Death Rate Maps & Graphs. Published June 2022.

4. SMARI research commissioned by Know the Facts Indiana campaign. Conducted February-March 2023.