Articles / Blog
Reach Out To Us Today! Most Private Insurance Accepted

12-22 Experiencing, witnessing abuse can cause substance use problems in adulthood

Experiencing, witnessing abuse can cause substance use problems in adulthood

A recent study has found that people who experience early childhood trauma are at an increased risk for later developing substance addictions, including both alcoholism and drug addiction.

The results of this study were published in the scientific journal Substance Use & Misuse.

The study

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, hoped to determine whether certain forms of childhood trauma can predict future substance misuse.

The researchers analyzed data from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, a nationwide project designed to provide valuable health-related information to clinicians, researchers and the public. Using this survey, the researchers were able to gather a representative sample of 21,544 adult Canadians, 628 of whom had a history of drug addiction and 849 with a history of alcohol addiction.

From their analysis, the researchers found that one in five drug dependent adults and one in six alcohol dependent adults were survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The rate of childhood sexual abuse in the Canadian population is roughly one in 19.

The researchers also found that adults with a history of drug and/or alcohol addiction were significantly more likely to have witnessed chronic domestic abuse between their parents. (Chronic parental domestic violence, the researchers clarify, is defined as occurring 11 or more times before the participant was 16 years old.) Specifically, one in seven adults with a history of drug addiction or alcohol addiction has witnessed chronic parental domestic violence.

“This compares to one in 25 in the general population,” explained Esme Fuller-Thomson, Professor at the University of Toronto and one of the researchers in the study.

The researchers also looked at other factors. For instance, they examined whether or not any of the participants lived in poverty or if they had a history of mental illness. After accounting for these additional variables, the researchers found that children who witnessed domestic violence between their parents were at a 50 percent higher risk of developing substance addiction compared to people who didn’t experience parental domestic violence.

“We found that both direct (physical and sexual abuse) and indirect (witnessing parental domestic violence) forms of childhood victimization are associated with substance abuse,” said Esme Fuller-Thomson, Professor at the University of Toronto.

What does this mean?

Childhood trauma can increase the risk of people later developing substance addiction, even if they did not experience the trauma firsthand. This is perhaps unsurprising as parental domestic abuse is a highly stressful experience and stress increases the likelihood of ultimately developing an addiction.

More research will be necessary before we understand precisely how witnessing parental domestic abuse can change the brain, especially compared to other forms of childhood maltreatment.

In the meantime, it’s important for clinicians and the public alike to recognize the dangers associated with childhood trauma.

“Our findings underline the importance of preventing childhood abuse and domestic violence,” said Jessica Roane, one of the co-authors. “In addition, social workers and other health professionals must continue to support survivors of these childhood adversities across the lifespan, with particular attention to substance abuse and dependence issues.”

Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego is a leading residential treatment center licensed in mental health, substance addiction and co-occurring disorders for teens ages 12 to 17. We use both technology and counseling to identify each patient’s neurological state as well as any lifestyle issues that could be hampering their path to sobriety. For more information on our treatments for teens, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

Stay connected with Sovereign Health
Get the latest news on program developments, behavioral health news and company announcements

We accept Most Private Insurance, reach out to us to so we can help!

Measurement-Based Care Close X
Call Now Button