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Substance Abuse | Clearbrook Treatment Centers

Time and time again, we hear people ask, “What causes substance abuse?” The answer, unfortunately, is not that simple. Addiction is a multi-faceted disease, so to say one specific thing or circumstance caused it, would be unjust. There are a number of wide-ranging factors that contribute to addiction, some including, a genetic predisposition, environment, peer-pressure, stress, mental health disorders, and trauma. Typically, it is a combination of these factors that contribute to an individual’s substance abuse disorder.

Although sensitive in nature, today we would like to discuss the correlation between childhood sexual abuse and addiction. We believe it is important to recognize this correlation, as well as inform those who have suffered through trauma and substance abuse, that help is available. This article is intended to provide insight and education surrounding a topic that is rarely discussed, but affects many people.

Research Studies

Childhood sexual abuse has negative long-term effects on a person in many domains of life.  Research indicates that childhood sexual abuse can affect symptoms later in life that include victimization of others, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and interpersonal relationship problems, just to name a few. Another study found a relationship between childhood sexual abuse and substance abuse problems in adulthood, with more than half of those in treatment for addiction having a positive history for sexual or physical abuse in childhood. Additionally, they indicated that those with a positive history of sexual abuse are more likely to struggle with addiction than those with a positive history of physical abuse or no abuse history.

A 2000 study at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School found that women (N=1411) who were sexually abused as children reported substance abuse and addiction as adults three times more often than were women who were not victims of sexual abuse as children.  In this study, researchers looked at the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and six psychiatric disorders, which included both alcohol and drug dependence.  Sample participants came from a nonclinical population of women, with histories of various degrees of sexual abuse.  Findings indicate that drug and alcohol dependence was more strongly and significantly associated with childhood sexual abuse than any other disorder.

A 1988 research study assessed the differences in disclosure of sexual abuse history of adult participants at a drug and alcohol treatment facility.  When intakes were conducted as usual, and the question of childhood sexual abuse was not part of the standard information gathering process, very few residents would disclose their history.  However, when the intakes began to routinely ask residents about childhood sexual abuse, disclosures increased significantly, by 40% or more.  This indicates that perhaps the statistics for this association previously were much lower, but only because the right questions had never been asked (Dependence, 1988).

In another study, researchers found a positive association between childhood sexual abuse and substance abuse. Over 700 substance abusers were interviewed and their overall physical and mental health was assessed.  Of these participants, those who had been sexually abused as children had poorer physical and mental health at baseline than did those without a history of abuse.  One year later, following rounds of substance abuse treatment, these same participants were again assessed.  Findings at follow up indicate that even after treatment of equal quality and length, those with a history of childhood sexual abuse were in poorer physical and mental health than those without an abuse history.

Other research on these topics confirms the above findings.  There is a direct relationship between childhood sexual abuse and an addiction problem in adulthood.


People turn to substance abuse for a variety of reasons, and each individual has her/his own reasons for using.  There are some common reasons, though, that have been identified by users as a reason for using. Some addicts use to numb negative feelings or to pull themselves out of depression or improve self-esteem.  Others may use drugs to fit in or to rebel, while others still may use drugs as a way to escape their current situation.  Drug use is often a coping skill, albeit not a good coping skill, that is used to deal with situations and emotions that are hard to manage.

Adults who have a positive history of child sexual abuse are likely to have many feelings and situations that are difficult to manage.  A person may have flashbacks to the sexual abuse and may use drugs to avoid experiencing the painful memories.  Someone may currently be in a sexually abusive relationship and could use drugs to escape from their lives.  Another person may still have to interact with their perpetrator, in the case that the abuse was a parent or family member, and may use drugs to numb their feelings.

Now What?

Breaking the habit of addiction can be very difficult, especially if it is tied to negative feelings of childhood sexual abuse.  However, using and abusing drugs and alcohol will always have a negative outcome.  In order to move forward in recovery, the first step is to establish a support network.  This can include supportive family members and friends, as well as a professional team, an AA/NA home group, and a sponsor.  Specialized trauma therapy would be helpful for dealing with the wounds that were left by the abuse, however therapy can bring up some very terrible memories and feelings.  This is when having a support network is so very critical.

Trauma Therapy For Substance Abusers

Treatment for substance abuse problems often involves 28 day inpatient programs, outpatient counseling, and attendance at 12 step programs.  However, it is essential that treatment also target the trauma that is present, in order to help the person find ways to manage feelings related to the past trauma other than abusing substances.  If left untreated, the issues related to childhood sexual trauma may continue to affect a person, leaving her/him open to relapse to substance abuse.

Research has found that when compared with a control group on non-substance abusers, people with addiction problems show worse outcomes in therapy, have more frequent cancellations, make less progress overall, and spend more time in therapy than do their non-abusing counterparts.  In order to counter these findings, experts suggest that therapists meet more frequently with substance abusers, in order to provide them with extra support, accountability, and to allow less time in between visits for relapse.  Additionally, experts recommend meeting with substance abusers in locations that are comfortable to them, rather than in an office setting.  This could be in a community setting, at an AA/NA meeting, or in their homes.

Contact Clearbrook Today

If you or someone you know and love is currently struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, help is available and recovery is possible.

For 45 years, Clearbrook Treatment Centers has been providing quality treatment to the chemically dependent person and offering support services to the affected family members. Located in the beautiful mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania, you or your loved one will have the opportunity to recover in a peaceful and serene environment.

Please contact our Admissions Specialists today and see what recovery has to offer.




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