Mental Health Myths: Addiction

Medically reviewed by: Erika McElroy, Ph.D.
Monday, March 21 2022

You may have heard that addiction isn’t a real mental health problem, that it’s voluntary. The truth is, it IS a real mental health condition. Also known as substance use disorder, addiction is a mental health condition that alters a person’s brain and behavior, leading to an inability to control their substance use. 

Addiction is the most severe form of a substance use disorder. And in 2020, 40.3 million Americans aged 12 or older — that’s 14.5% of our population — reported a substance use disorder leaving them vulnerable to addiction. 

Below, we’ll dispel five common myths about addiction. Keep reading to learn more about this misunderstood topic. 

Myth #1: “Addiction” isn’t a real mental health condition. It’s a choice.

This is simply not true. While many instances of substance use are voluntary at first, some instances are involuntary, such as following a prescription by a trusted medical provider. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction can be defined as “a state of psychological or physical dependence (or both) on the use of alcohol or other drugs.” 

Plus, research shows that actual changes to the brain occur in people with addiction. These changes affect judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “after continued use, a person's ability to exert self-control can become seriously impaired. This impairment in self-control is the hallmark of addiction.” 

Myth #2: You can only be addicted to illegal or “street” drugs.

True, people can become addicted to illicit substances. But people can also become addicted to legal substances, like tobacco or alcohol, and prescribed substances, like opioids. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), the standard textbook used to diagnose mental health conditions published by the American Psychiatric Association, classifies the following substances associated with addiction and abuse: 

  • Alcohol
  • Amphetamines (sometimes prescribed to treat ADHD)
  • Caffeine 
  • Cannabis
  • Cocaine
  • Hallucinogens
  • Inhalants
  • Opioids
  • Phencyclidines (PCP)
  • Sedatives, hypnotics, or anxiolytics
  • Tobacco

Addiction is also sometimes applied to behavioral disorders, such as sexual, Internet, and gambling addictions.

Myth #3: Everyone makes jokes about addiction. It can’t possibly affect others.

False. What you say matters (more on that here) and can influence others either positively or negatively. And research shows someone with a substance use disorder is less willing to seek help if they feel stigmatized. 

To help reduce bias, consider the words you use and how you communicate about certain topics. Use people-first language to help keep the person separate from their mental health condition. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a helpful chart of terms to avoid and terms to use when talking about addiction here.

Myth #4: If someone does not experience physical withdrawal symptoms, they’re not addicted.

Symptoms like a change in appearance, trembling, and excessive sweating are visible signs of withdrawal. But those aren’t the only signs that something serious is going on.  

There are social symptoms that may show up first or at the same time. Social symptoms include: 

  • Skipping hobbies or activities
  • Missing important engagements
  • Increased need for solidarity
  • Denial and diversion of the topic

If someone you know has a substance use disorder, these behavior changes could be a symptom of their addiction or withdrawal.

Myth #5: “Once an addict, always an addict.” 

Absolutely not. Addiction is a complex part of a chronic, treatable condition. With the right help, treatment makes living with substance use disorder possible. 

Some options for treatment include therapy, support groups, medication, and rehabilitation. A comprehensive plan will include medical and mental health services — including the evaluation and treatment for possible co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety or depression. Long-term follow-up care can help prevent relapse. 

It’s important to remember that each individual will need to find a personalized treatment plan based on their own health history. Treatment plans should be reviewed often and modified as their needs change. 

If you think you or a loved one might be experiencing addiction, talk with a doctor or mental health provider about the symptoms or changes in behavior you’re noticing. They can help create a personalized treatment plan that is right for you or them. 

The signs of addiction can be hard to pinpoint because they vary greatly. Addiction is a term used to describe a variety of substance use and activity dependencies, and this article should not be used in place of medical advice. 

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency, do not use this site. Instead, call 911 or use one of these emergency resources.


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