Addiction is defined as a disease by most medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. About 25-50% of people with a substance use problem appear to have a severe, chronic disorder. For them, addiction is a progressive, relapsing disease that requires intensive treatments and continuing aftercare, monitoring and family or peer support to manage their recovery.

Some people think addiction cannot be a disease because it is caused by the individual’s choice to use drugs or alcohol. While the first time using (or early stage use) may be by choice, once the brain has been changed by addiction, most experts believe that the person more or less loses control of their behavior. Choice does not determine whether something is a disease. Heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer involve personal choices like diet, exercise, sun exposure, etc. A disease is what happens in the body as a result of those choices.

What is still not completely known is what causes addiction. Most professionals agree that addiction isn’t solely attributed to one solitary cause. Rather, addiction is a complex disease that forms as a culmination of many factors. One such factor is mental health issues. As mentioned, mental health disorders are very common among substance abusers. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports over 50 percent of drug addicts have one or more severe mental health disorders. Some camps believe that addiction is caused by one’s circumstances or environment. That is to say that an individual brought up in particularly bad or dangerous conditions will be more likely to have addiction issues. Some studies show and believe that addiction is genetic and that individuals with the “addiction gene” are predisposed and circumstance or environment have little or nothing to do with someone becoming an addict.

The latest studies, however, cite that it is actually a combination of the two aforementioned theories— environment and genetics— and that someone with the addiction gene gets the gene activated by circumstance or environment. Like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental and biological factors. Genetic risks factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop addiction.

Regardless of what causes addiction there are several solutions for an individual who struggles with it. Asking for help can be terrifying but it is certainly necessary in order to begin the process of recovery.