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How Childhood Trauma Can Create Lifelong Adult Addicts

Author: Trey Dyer

The link between child abuse and future adult drug abuse is strong. More than 66 percent of those in treatment for substance use disorders report abuse during their childhood — including physical, mental and sexual abuse or neglect — according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A study published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect found childhood abuse rates as high as 84 percent among those in treatment for substance abuse.

United States child protection services receive approximately 3 million reports involving 5.5 million children each year. Of those 3 million cases, nearly 30 percent involve child abuse. In those cases:

  • 65 percent were survivors of neglect
  • 18 percent were survivors of physical abuse
  • 10 percent were survivors of sexual abuse
  • 7 percent were survivors of psychological abuse

These types of abuse can lead to lasting trauma. About two-thirds of child abuse cases go unreported.

Survivors of child abuse often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the trauma they faced as children. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after an individual experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. Those who develop the disorder may experience fear, stress or anxiety about their safety as a result of the trauma even when there is no threat to them. About 5 percent of adolescents develop PTSD; however, more than 21 percent of foster care alumni develop PTSD.

Researchers at Hofstra University compared three groups of foster care children and found that approximately 60 percent of those who were sexually abused were diagnosed with PTSD, and 42 percent of those who were physically abused developed the disorder.

PTSD is also inextricably linked to substance abuse. Those who suffer from PTSD may turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication to cope with the emotions brought on by the disorder.

Surveys by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Chestnut Health Systems found that more than 70 percent of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse reported a history of trauma exposure. Multiple studies, including one from Harvard Medical School, found that up to 59 percent of adolescents with PTSD develop a substance use disorder during their lifetime.

Women are particularly at risk of developing co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders. In a study involving nearly 200 adolescents with substance use disorders, 45.3 percent of female adolescents developed PTSD during their lifetime, compared to 24.3 percent of male adolescents.

Multiple studies show that 25 to 76 percent of teens with substance use disorders started using drugs or alcohol following trauma exposure and 14 to 59 percent started using at the onset of PTSD.

Support for survivors of child abuse is pivotal to preventing them from developing substance use disorders and PTSD. These individuals face trauma and often have no guardian or trusted adult for support, making the emotional damage even more devastating.

If your child survived a traumatic experience and is showing signs such as anger, sleep problems or a change in school performance, you may need to get help from a mental health professional who treats children with PTSD.

About the Author: Trey Dyer is a writer for and advocate for people with substance use disorders. Trey is passionate about helping people with mental health and substance use disorders reach the treatment they need to get healthy. When Trey is not writing, he can be found fly fishing, traveling and smoking BBQ.


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