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McKinley Hall CEO says addiction is a disease.

McKinley Hall’s CEO urged guests at the Springfield Safety Council on Tuesday not to simply judge the behavior of those addicted to drugs, but to think of addiction as a disease.

It’s easy to get frustrated by an addict’s behavior, said Wendy Doolittle, CEO of McKinley Hall. But residents need to understand that behavior is being driven by a brain that is not functioning properly.

“We don’t stop to think about how that behavior is being triggered,” Doolittle said. “It’s being triggered by a brain that’s dysfunctional.”

RELATED: Rash of overdoses in Springfield strains resources

Prolonged drug use actually changes the way the brain functions, rewiring parts of the brain in ways that fuel addictive behavior, she said.

McKinley Hall is a private nonprofit that provides substance abuse treatment and support services in Clark County.

For businesses, addiction can lead to several concerns. Employees addicted to drugs often miss significantly more work, are more likely to seek worker’s compensation and are more likely to be involved in accidents on the job, she said.

But she also noted those workers are often skilled employees under normal circumstances. Often, even employees who have received treatment have difficulty finding jobs based on their past, which can quickly become discouraging, she said.

“We’ve got to understand how to get folks the help and support they need,” Doolittle said.

MORE: Clark County drug overdoses double in 24-hour spike 

Like numerous communities across the U.S., officials in Clark County are trying to find the best way to cope with a growing number of residents addicted to drugs. In January alone, public safety forces in Springfield responded to at least 130 drug overdose calls, which local leaders said has stretched resources and strained first responders physically and emotionally.

To combat the epidemic, Doolittle said local leaders both in business, the medical community and law enforcement need to find ways to get out of their silos and work cooperatively to find effective ways to prevent and treat addiction. While she admitted many people who are now addicted made a choice to take the drug, in most cases it began when the patient was still an adolescent when they may have faced peer pressure and were more likely to make bad decisions.

“Most people we see, addiction starts as an adolescent and it gets worse,” Doolittle said.

MORE DETAILS: Clark Co. hospital, EMS resources stretched as overdoses spike again 

Because the drugs create a chemical imbalance in the brain, treatment can include making sure patients get proper rest and exercise, along with relaxation and meditation techniques, she said. That can be difficult even for people without an addiction, she said, but it’s an important part of a treatment program that also includes counseling, learning recovery skills and ultimately developing new neural pathways in the brain, she said.

Local officials have also had some success with treatments such as Vivitrol, a drug that blocks addicts from getting high on opiates for 30 days. That time gives patients an opportunity to focus on treatment.

“The brain doesn’t heal overnight,” Doolittle said. “Just because they’re sober, it doesn’t mean their brain is functioning normally.”

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