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November 23, 2022

Is Addiction a Learned Behavior or Mental Health?

Is it Nature vs. Nurture when it comes to addiction to drugs and alcohol, and what is the right addiction treatment in Massachusetts?

For decades, it was assumed that addiction was due to poor moral character or lack of willpower. Then modern science discovered that there was a genetic component involved – some people were simply predisposed toward addiction. 


Is Addiction a Learned Behavior or Mental Health?However, new research points to something else entirely. There seems to be a learning pattern component to addiction, as well. Which is the truth – mental health problem or learned behavior – and what is the right addiction treatment for Massachusetts residents?


Learning or Mental Health – What Is Addiction, Anyway?


Before we can explore options for addiction treatment in Massachusetts, we need to establish what addiction is. Both sides of the argument claim to have science on their side. Those who claim that addiction is a disease and that it’s genetically predicated point to long-established scientific studies in which a predisposition toward drug and/or alcohol use is transmitted through blood ties.


However, those who argue that addiction is a learned behavior also have strong scientific studies to back their arguments. For instance, in a study published in 2019 in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, the authors point out that, for many people, drug or alcohol abuse begins as goal-seeking (often to self-medicate a mental health condition). 


Over time, that cements into habitual seeking (a learned pattern that transforms into a rock-hard habit). In many cases, those changes are caused by the drugs or alcohol in question.


The American Psychiatric Association weighs in with, “substance use disorder (SUD) is a complex condition in which there is the uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences…The most severe SUDs are sometimes called addictions. People with substance use disorder may have distorted thinking and behaviors. 


Changes in the brain’s structure and function are what cause people to have intense cravings, changes in personality, abnormal movements, and other behaviors. Brain imaging studies show changes in the areas of the brain that relate to judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavioral control.”


From this, we can tell that addiction often begins as a behavior related to achieving a goal – feeling better, masking the symptoms of trauma, or performing at a level perceived as desirable. Over time, that usage becomes habitual. It transforms into an ingrained behavior. However, eventually, the drugs/alcohol create physical changes in the brain itself that transcend either mental health or learned behaviors.


Further Complications


The picture of addiction we see emerging is more complex than many people would at first assume. However, there is even more to it. In addition to the original reason for seeking out drugs or alcohol, the habit that develops over time, and the physical changes to the brain, there is further learning involved.


For instance, as the person continues to abuse the substance in question, they learn to associate feeling better with the substance itself. It’s much like Pavlov's dog, which learned to associate the ringing of a bell with food and eventually would salivate whenever a bell rang, even if there was no food present. Over time, the substance is equated with the sensation and the individual “learns” that the behavior will make them feel better. 


So, addiction can be seen as a multifaceted thing. We’ve gone beyond the outmoded idea that those addicted to drugs or alcohol are somehow morally weaker than others, or that they have a poor character. Now it’s time to transcend the idea that addiction is somehow just one thing – either a mental health condition or a learned behavior. It is both, and it often relates to trauma, stress, and other negative factors in a person’s life and upbringing.


Finding the Right Addiction Treatment in Massachusetts


Now that we know a bit more about what addiction is, we can discuss how to find the right addiction treatment option within Massachusetts. In many ways, it is a learning disorder, although there may be a genetic component to it for many sufferers. There is also often past emotional and mental health baggage – trauma, unrealized expectations (often from parents or other authority figures), and more. Is Addiction a Learned Behavior or Mental Health?


The right addiction treatment option in MA will take a holistic approach to the situation and encompass all parts of the individual being treated. Addiction is not just related to mental health. Likewise, it is not only a learned behavior. It is a complex outcome related to multifaceted inputs, events, occurrences, genetic predispositions, and responses to trauma and stimuli.


However, while addiction is a complex disease that affects brain function and behavior, it can be treated through a combination of steps. It’s all about meeting the individual’s needs, not just removing drugs or alcohol from the situation. Counseling, behavioral therapy, medications, group support, and ongoing help after the addiction treatment has been completed all play a role in whether a person is successful or not.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/img-ed-480x572.jpg[/author_image]  [author_info]Reviewed by Ed Lepage, Executive Director

Ed Lepage completed the drug and alcohol certificate program at the University of Massachusetts Boston and has been working in the substance abuse dependency field for the past seven years. He has also worked extensively in peer recovery-based programs offering “real-world experience” to those that suffer from substance use dependency. Full Bio [/author_info] [/author]