Adults Abused as Children Often Plagued by Comorbid Drug Abuse, Mental Illness

Portrait of a sad girl

Adults who were the victims of child abuse have increased chances of developing substance use disorders as adults, research has shown. In addition, adults with such a history are known to have increased risks for developing a mental illness unrelated to substance use.

In a study scheduled for publication in October 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of researchers from two U.S. universities sought to determine if adults with a child abuse history also have increased risks for co-existing or comorbid problems with both substance use disorder and non-substance-related mental illness.

The term child abuse covers a range of adult behaviors that clearly endanger the health and well-being of a child. Some of these behaviors center on the physical component of abuse and include such things as punching, kicking, burning, choking or beating a child. Other child abuse-related behaviors center on a sexual component of abuse and include such things as making a child participate in an adult sexual act, exposing a child to adult sexual acts or exploiting a child for sex-related purposes. A third category of child abuse-related behaviors includes emotional/psychological acts, such as taunting a child, threatening a child or intentionally withdrawing emotional support from a child. Child abuse can also include acts of neglect, such as failing to provide for a child’s basic financial, educational, medical needs or safety within the home.

Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder is a mental health condition first defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2013. People diagnosed with this disorder can have symptoms of non-addicted substance abuse, substance addiction or both substance abuse and substance addiction. Prior to 2013, the APA treated substance abuse and substance addiction as separate issues that do not overlap to any significant degree. The substance use disorder diagnosis alters this split approach by officially confirming the scientifically supported fact that some abuse and addiction symptoms can intermingle in the same person or appear in highly similar forms. When using the diagnosis, doctors identify the specific substance causing problems in the individual and gauge the severity of those problems by adding up the number of addiction/abuse symptoms present.

Risk for Co-Existing Problems

Significant numbers of people have co-existing or comorbid problems with substance abuse/addiction and other mental health issues. Doctors use the term comorbid to describe two or more conditions that appear in one person at the same time and produce more pronounced effects than they would if they appeared on their own. In the study scheduled for publication in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of Maryland and Columbia University used an examination of 280 adults seeking treatment for substance problems to help determine if a history of child abuse exposure makes a person more likely to develop comorbid cases of substance use disorder and a mental illness such as a personality disorder, a mood disorder (depression or bipolar disorder), an anxiety disorder or a psychosis-related condition like schizophrenia. All of the study participants took two standard screening tests for mental illness and also answered a questionnaire specifically designed to detail any personal history of child abuse.

In a preliminary finding, the researchers confirmed the fact that adults with a history of child abuse have substantially increased risks for developing a non-substance-related mental illness. They also found that the average substance user with a child abuse history has a heightened level of susceptibility to serious mental illness. When they examined the connection between child abuse history and co-existing substance use disorder and mental illness, the researchers concluded that adults exposed to such abuse have significantly higher chances of developing comorbid substance- and mental illness-related problems. Critically, these increased chances apparently apply to all substances capable of producing abuse/addiction issues, as well as to all of the major categories of non-substance-related mental illness.

The study’s authors note that child abuse exposure is clearly a crucial factor in the onset of many cases of comorbid substance use disorder and serious mental illness. They believe that awareness of this underlying connection may lead to vital improvements in the treatments provided to people seeking help for their substance-related problems.

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