Addiction, Relapse, and Recidivism
Contributors: Catie Lewis, Leah Coffey, and Dylan Seagrave
For many of the individuals who participate in Gemeinschaft Home’s programs, forward progress is often hindered by one venomous vice—addiction—a disease of the brain and fundamental human condition that exists across every race, culture, nationality, gender, age, and socio-economic background.
It is important to recognize addiction as a disease, despite the pervasive cultural narrative that addiction is a personal choice. Both the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine define addiction as a disease: “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.”
Addiction to illegal substances creates an even more complex situation, because society generally condemns the possession and use of drugs as a moral failing—a crime to be punished, rather than a disease to be treated. It is probably safe to say that most people would not blame cancer patients for bringing the disease upon themselves via poor eating habits but are quick to pass judgement on individuals who struggle with substance abuse, because their addiction is based on illegal behavior.
While this punitive perspective may deter some individuals from ever engaging in illicit drugs, it offers an ineffective solution for those individuals who have already fallen victim to an illegal substance addiction. Substance abusers often get snared in a cycle of incarceration, release, and re-incarceration, which only exacerbates the disease of addiction, rather than treating it.
Recidivism is likely among addicts whose behavior is characterized as a crime, not a disease, and relapse is inevitable, without proper support and treatment, leading to re-incarceration. Because addiction is still considered a staple of criminality and degeneracy, relapse most often provides the basis for law enforcement rather than medical intervention, particularly for individuals who are on probation and subject to a zero-tolerance drug use condition.
Yet, the American Addiction Centers offers some helpful information to combat the negative stigma surrounding relapse, stating that, “Relapse is considered a normal part of addiction recovery and should be understood to be a stepping-stone on that path and not as the end of the road.
Relapse often indicates that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted. Relapse can vary in its intensity and duration as well, and there are several ways for a person to decrease episodes and severity of relapse through treatment programs, therapeutic methods, and a strong support system.”
Thus, relapse is a physiological response to and result of addiction that is virtually impossible to address with punitive measures like incarceration. Yet, without intervention, substance abuse addiction dramatically increases motivation for criminal activity—such as drug sales and purchases, theft, robbery, fraud, or other crimes that provide access to or pay for illicit substances—which leads to (re)incarceration and keeps the cycle of recidivism spinning.
Individuals who struggle with addiction benefit tremendously from a structured program upon release from (or as an alternative to) incarceration; when faced suddenly with life on their own, the imbalances created by addiction in their brains dramatically increase their chances of relapsing or reverting entirely back to drug abuse. Gemeinschaft Home’s programming maintains a primary mission of self-recovery and redirection away from negative tendencies and habits that lead to incarceration.
Approaching addiction as a disease—not a crime—is a philosophy that informs the services provided by Gemeinschaft Home, and while we cannot prevent individuals from being incarcerated as a result of their addictions, we can work to address underlying problems associated with substance abuse that lead to criminal behavior and, ultimately, incarceration.
In other words, if we engage in empathy instead of punishment, we make our communities healthier and safer.