Survivors of Childhood Abuse Struggle with PTSD and Addiction


By Hugh C. McBride

It shouldn’t hurt to be a child. But in too many cases, it does. And the effects of what can only be described as an epidemic of child abuse and neglect extend far beyond life’s early years.

Information provided on the website of the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) indicates the disturbing regularity with which children and young teens in the United States are exposed to trauma:

Data from the [2000] National Survey of Adolescents and other studies indicate that one in four children and adolescents in the United States experiences at least one potentially traumatic event before the age of 16.

More than 13 percent of 17 year olds — one in eight — have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives.

One of the many devastating effects of childhood trauma, the NCTSN reports, is an increased likelihood that traumatized young people will turn to alcohol and other substances as a way to cope — a decidedly unhealthy choice with potentially devastating results:

Many of these young people also have access to psychoactive substances that can both dull the effects of stress and place teens at increased risk of experiencing trauma. It is estimated that 29 percent of adolescents — nearly one in three — have experimented with illegal drugs by the time they complete eighth grade, and that 41 percent have consumed alcohol.

Measuring the Effects of Trauma

In an attempt to identify and quantify the effects of childhood trauma, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente’s San Diego-based Health Appraisal Clinic have partnered for the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, one of the largest investigations ever conducted on the links between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.

Initial data for the study was collected from more than 17,000 members of the Kaiser Health Maintenance Organization between 1995 and 1997, the CDC reports — and though no new subjects are being recruited, the medical status of the baseline participants continues to be tracked and evaluated.

According to the ACE Study website, an adverse childhood experience is defined as any of the following events that involve a child under the age of 18:

  1. Recurrent physical abuse
  2. Recurrent emotional abuse
  3. Emotional or physical neglect
  4. Contact sexual abuse
  5. An alcohol and/or drug abuser in the household
  6. An incarcerated household member
  7. Someone who is chronically depressed, mentally ill, institutionalized or suicidal
  8. Mother is treated violently
  9. One or no parents

‘Time Does Not Heal all Wounds’

Study subjects were assigned an ACE score based on the number of abusive, neglectful or otherwise dysfunctional experiences they endured during their childhood. The researchers were then able to establish associations between these traumatic experiences and later-life substance abuse, addictions and other health problems.

For example, the ACE website reports that, compared with those who suffered no childhood trauma, individuals with an ACE score of four or higher (which means they were exposed to at least four of the nine adverse childhood experiences enumerated above) are four to 12 times more likely to experience alcoholism, drug abuse and depression.

The likelihood that these individuals will attempt to commit suicide is also between four and 12 times greater than the suicide risk among non-traumatized adults.

An Aug. 25 article by James Thalman of the Deseret News paints a stark picture of the powerful negative impact of childhood trauma:

When health studies find a higher risk for disease in a research group, a 10 percent to 30 percent increase is viewed as alarming.

A male patient with a child ACE trauma score of six, compared with a male child with an ACE score of zero, has a 4,600 percent increase in the likelihood of becoming an injection drug user sometime later in life.

“The powerful connection between our emotional experience as children and our emotional and physical well-being as adults shows that time absolutely does not heal all wounds,” Dr. Vincent Felitti, a Kaiser doctor who has been involved with the ACE effort, told Thalman.

Additional Insights

The ACE study is far from the only attempt to determine the lasting impact of childhood trauma and its connection to later-life substance abuse and addiction.

In a July 1998 report for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), writer Neil Swan reported that about 67 percent of all people who had been treated for substance abuse said they had been abused (physically, sexually or psychologically) during their childhoods.

Swan’s “NIDA Notes” report also specifically addressed the dire consequences encountered by female survivors of childhood rape.

“Dr. Dean G. Kilpatrick at the Medical University of South Carolina found that more than 61 percent of rapes of the 4,008 women in his study occurred by age 17,” Swan wrote. “About half of those occurred by age 11; these obviously were cases of child abuse.”

Compared with adult females who had not been raped as children, Swan reported, rape survivors were at increased risk for several types of substance abuse:

  • More than three times as likely to have used marijuana
  • Six times more likely to have used cocaine
  • More than 10 times as likely to have used drugs other than cocaine, including heroin and amphetamines

Overcoming Abuse, Ending Addiction

In their efforts to lead healthy and satisfying lives, survivors of child abuse face a number of physical, emotional and psychological obstacles.

And as mental health experts and addiction recovery professionals gain greater insights into the insidious association between childhood trauma and later-life substance abuse, more emphasis is being placed on ensuring that clients receive treatment for all of their behavioral and emotional disorders. Simply treating the addiction — or, conversely, attempting to address the psychological effect of childhood trauma without considering the impact of the substance abuse — decreases the likelihood of success.

At residential recovery programs such as the Life Healing Center in Santa Fe, N.M., clients have the opportunity to heal from their substance abuse and addiction disorders while also accessing professional treatment for survivors of childhood trauma. The Life Healing Center helps clients overcome PTSD, grief, bereavement, sex/love addiction, eating disorders, self-mutilation, codependency, obsessive compulsive disorder and related conditions.

Trauma and abuse are tragically prevalent in modern American society. But help is available, treatment is effective and the pursuit of a healthier and happier future is possible.

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