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Dr. Remi Quirion talks about addiction and mental illness

Globe and Mail Update

From the lab to the legislature, the push is on to recognize and treat addiction as a mental illness. A growing body of research finds addiction is not the result of bad behaviour or weak character, but the result of biochemical disruptions in the brain that genetically vulnerable people are, on their own, powerless to overcome. It distorts mood, clear thinking and compulsion control. People who suffer from it, scientists believe, can no more talk themselves out of their dependence any more than people can talk themselves out of depression.

The American Medical Association first recognized addiction as a disease in 1956. Still, there remain doctors who refuse to treat patients with addictions, patients too ashamed to seek treatment and pharmaceutical companies reluctant to develop drugs for addicts.

But Rémi Quirion, professor of psychiatry at McGill University and scientific director of the Institute of Neurosciences for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said, "More and more experts agree addictions are a brain disease. Addictions are themselves a mental illness."

As with any mental illness, addiction runs in families, impacted by genes, stress and lifestyle risk factors. The right combination can make a person dependent on a psychoactive substance from the first try.

Do you have questions about drug addiction and mental illness? We're pleased to have Dr. Quirion online Wednesday, July 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET for a live online discussion. Send your questions now and read his answers, which are posted below.

Dr. Rémi Quirion is a McGill University Full Professor and Scientific Director at the Douglas Hospital Research Centre (a McGill affiliated teaching hospital). Under his leadership, the Douglas Hospital Research Centre became a premier research facility in Canada in the fields of neurosciences and mental health.

Dr Quirion promoted the development of neurosciences and clinical research in Neurology and Psychiatry as well as social and evaluation aspects of research in mental health and addiction.

Dr. Quirion is one of the most highly cited neuroscientists in the world, in addition to being Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a "Chevalier" of the "Ordre national du Québec". He also received in 2003 the Médaille de l'Assemblée nationale du Québec" and the "2003 First Annual Award - National Mental Health Champion (Research)". In 2004 he received the "Wilder-Penfield Award, Prix du Québec", the highest distinction in Biomedical Research in Quebec, as well as a Heinz-Lehmann Award from the Douglas Hospital Foundation, and the Dr. Mary V. Seeman Award from the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation.

Carolyn Abraham, writes: Thanks for joining us today Dr. Quirion. If science has now gathered evidence that addictions are a mental illness, how should the health system deal with a patient who has a substance dependence?

Dr. Quirion:Very good and important question. Patients suffering from an addiction should be offered the same access to care and treatment as ANY other types of patients..suffering from a cancer, a cardiovascular problem, hip surgery, etc. Canadians are most proud of our universal health care system. Accordingly, we must make sure that ALL have equal access to the best of care..including fellow Canadians suffering from a mental illness or an addiction. To settle for less should not be acceptable to anyone.

al goguen from Victoria Canada writes: I can't recall the name of the Dr. who was an alcoholic and gave a lecture on addiction. Why for instance, in the same family, one sibling is an alcoholic, and another one not. His explanation made a lot of sense. The Dr was convinced that he was an alcoholic because he had a different liver than a non-alcoholic. The cells of an alcoholic liver are smaller and therefore keep the alcohol longer than a liver of a non alcoholic whose liver cells were bigger, and therefore could get rid of the alcohol faster. At the time I thought it made a lot of sense: one liver kept alcohol longer and another one not. But now Dr. Quirion's explanation is even more convincing.

Mental illness is not easy to deal with, but with time I hope they will be able to find a proper treatment with this disease. All my life, I thought it was not fair that my older brother could not drink like I can. He could not stop drinking while I would fall asleep, wake up with a hangover and didn't feel like seeing another drink for a couple of days. While my brother was craving for the stuff even though he had been sicker than I did. The two different explanations still make a lot of sense, and hope they can help those who are addicted to alcohol or any other drugs. So many are suffering with addictions.

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Return to Breakdown: Canada’s Mental Health Crisis

Face it. Fund it. Fix it.

In Breakdown, The Globe and Mail documents the enormous, unaddressed cost of mental illness to Canadian individuals, families and society. The series closes with a search for solutions.


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