A new study has found that psychological trauma, especially abuse and domestic violence before the age of 11, increases the likelihood of experimenting with drugs in adolescence.
Analyzing data from almost 10,000 teens, researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that childhood trauma experiences before age 11 increased the chances that teens would try marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs used without a medical reason, other drugs, and multiple drugs.
They also found that a greater number of traumatic experiences were associated with an increase in risk for use of marijuana and other drugs.
“Abuse and domestic violence were particularly harmful to children, increasing the chances of all types of drug use in the adolescent years,” said Associate Professor Silvia S. Martins, M.D., Ph.D.. “We also found that trauma, such as car accidents, natural disasters, and major illness in childhood, increased the chances that teens would use marijuana, cocaine, and prescription drugs.”
Adolescents with a parent who misused alcohol or drugs were more likely to use marijuana and other drugs following exposure to some forms of childhood trauma, according to the study’s findings.
“Parent substance misuse may increase access to drugs in the home, indicate a biological predisposition towards drug use, serve as a model for coping with stress, or indicate lack of parental involvement or neglect,” noted Martins. “Future research should identify which mechanisms may increase this risk in order to target interventions.”
Adolescent drug use may be a precursor to harmful drug use, mental illness, and other problematic health behaviors in adulthood, Martins added.
“Targeting this modifiable health behavior in adolescence may help halt the trajectory towards the plethora of poor social and health outcomes often associated with childhood trauma,” she said.
The new study also could affect clinical practice because it shows that adolescents with a history of trauma are a high-risk group for illicit drug use and may benefit from prevention efforts that specifically address traumatic memories and coping strategies for dealing with stressful life events, the researchers suggest.
“Drug treatment programs should consider specifically addressing the psychological harm caused by traumatic experiences in childhood, and developing less harmful active-coping strategies for dealing with current stress and traumatic memories among adolescents,” said postdoctoral fellow Dr. Hannah Carliner. “Such early intervention during this critical period of adolescence could have broad benefits to the health and well-being of adults.”
The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.