Substance abuse and dependence can be triggered by many different events – including early childhood trauma. Some people use drugs and alcohol as a way to escape from their lives. However, other people turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to mask the pain caused by abuse and/or trauma. They use the substances to self-medicate.

Unfortunately, many teenagers start abusing drugs and alcohol at an early age in an attempt to block out feelings or thoughts. They have limited healthy coping skills, so instead they use the drugs and alcohol to feel numb. A study on children who attended middle and high school near where the Twin Towers used to stand prior to the terror attack on 9/11 found a direct correlation between the trauma-inducing factors the children experienced and their likelihood to use drugs or alcohol. Some of the trauma-inducing factors included knowing someone who perished in the attack, being in fear for your life or that of your loved ones, and how close their school was to the towers.

The study found that the kids with one trauma-inducing factor were five times more likely to increase substance use and those with three or more factors were 19 times more likely to increase substance use as opposed to their counterparts with no exposure factors. The children who increased their drug and alcohol use also struggled with lower grades, poor schoolwork, and behavioral problems.

The study’s findings are astounding and show a need for proper therapy and grief counseling for children who experience a traumatic event. These events may include natural or man-made disasters, near death experiences, medical trauma, and community violence. There are many different types of trauma too. Some trauma is constant, for example, child abuse can be a constant trauma. Other trauma can be reciprocal or periodic. Trauma such as verbal, mental, and physical abuse, neglect, substandard living conditions, and sexual abuse can be one-time events but can also become episodic, periodic, or even constant events. When a teenager experiences this type of trauma, they begin to show signs of depression or unstable behavior. It’s important to identify the roots in order to begin the process of finding help before the teen starts abusing drugs or alcohol.

Anyone who has experienced trauma knows that it’s not always easy to recover. Time published an article titled How Childhood Trauma May Make the Brain Vulnerable to Addiction, Depression, which focused on the inner workings of the brain and how traumatic events can increase a teenager’s chances of becoming depressed, using substances, or suffering from a psychological disorder. The article provided info on a study of 32 teenagers conducted by researchers from the University of Texas. Of the 32 subjects, 19 teenagers experienced some type of trauma such as life-threatening illness, witnessing domestic violence, or loss of a parent before the age of ten. The remaining 13 teenagers were the control group and did not have any history of major trauma or psychiatric problems.

Researchers followed up every six months during a period of four years. During that time, the researchers found that five of the traumatized children and one child in the control group had developed major depression and four of the traumatized children and one child in the control group had developed substance use disorders. Nearly half of the children in the traumatized group had either a diagnosable drug problem or depression or both. That rate was three times the rate seen in the control group.

According to the article, “Using a brain-imaging technique that measures the integrity of the white matter that connects various brain regions, the researchers looked for any differences in the teens’ brains when they were first enrolled in the study, before they had developed any psychiatric problems. The scans showed that kids who had been maltreated showed connectivity problems in several brain areas, including the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF), which is involved in planning behavior and, usually on the left side of the brain, in language processing. Another affected region was the right cingulum-hippocampus projection (CGH-R). This tract helps connect the brain’s emotional processing regions with those involved in more abstract thought, ideally allowing the person to integrate both types of information and to regulate their response to emotional stress.”

Traumatized children need access to treatment and counseling so they can come to terms with the events in their lives that are having such an adverse affect. At Inspirations, we work with teenagers to help them cope with negative events without turning to substance abuse.