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Childhood Emotional Abuse Linked To Opioid Epidemic

Researchers at the University of Vermont have identified a link between opioid abuse in adults and childhood emotional abuse.

In a recent study, 84 participants with a history of opioid abuse and childhood trauma went through a series of psychological tests and were interviewed about their childhood experiences. The results showed that those who suffered from emotional abuse in childhood were more strongly connected to opioid abuse than those who suffered from sexual or physical abuse during the same time period.

Exploring the Link Between Abuse and the Opioid Epidemic

Young women coping with-death-in-recovery, she is sitting alone and cryingResearchers also found that children who had been emotionally abused were more likely to engage in risky behavior in adolescence and have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in adulthood. As a result of the PTSD, study participants, in turn, took up opioid use – and later abuse – as a means of refuge or escape. The more severe the PTSD, the more severe the participants’ opioid-related problems, the researchers also found.

“If a person is being physically or sexually abused, it’s easier to put the blame on the person doing the abuse,” said Matthew Price, assistant professor in Department of Psychological Science at the University of Vermont, and the paper’s senior author.

“With emotional abuse, the abuser is saying ‘You are the problem.’ Being called names, being told you’re not good enough, being told no one cares about you undermines your ability to cope with difficult emotions. To protect themselves from strong emotions and from trauma cues that can bring on PTSD symptoms, people with this kind of childhood experience frequently adopt a strategy of avoidance, which can include opioid use.”

Combining Counseling With Substance Abuse Treatment

Researchers suggest that this traumatic emotional background is the reason some opioid abusers don’t respond to substance abuse counseling, especially counseling that doesn’t address these painful childhood experiences. Thus, therapies tailored to the specific needs of this group need to be implemented.

According to Price, the study suggests that a more integrated form of treatment should be explored – one integrating mental health counseling and substance abuse. “If a patient has had severe emotional abuse, and they have a tendency to act out when they’re feeling upset, and then they turn to opioids to deal with the resulting PTSD, it makes sense to address the emotional component and the drug problems at the same time.”

This study was published in the journal Addictive Behaviors and is the first time emotional abuse relating back to childhood has been identified as a specific cause for opioid addiction.