National Study Shows Childhood Trauma Linked to Later Illicit Drug Use

National Study Shows Childhood Trauma Linked to Later Illicit Drug Use

Posted: July 5, 2016
National Study Shows Childhood Trauma Linked to Later Illicit Drug Use

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Adolescents with a history of childhood trauma are at higher risk for illicit drug use and may benefit from trauma-focused prevention efforts.


American adolescents with a history of childhood trauma have a higher risk of illicit drug use than their peers, according to a population-based study of U.S. teens. The report was published online May 27 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The research team, led by Hannah Carliner, Sc.D., of Columbia University, included 2013 Young Investigator grantees Katie A. McLaughlin, Ph.D., of the University of Washington and Erin C. Dunn, Sc.D., M.P.H. of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Analyzing data drawn from a national survey of 9,956 adolescents aged 13 to 18, the researchers found that 36 percent of those surveyed had experienced a potentially traumatic event—anything from physical abuse to the unexpected death of a loved one—by the time they were 11 years old.

Exposure to these potentially traumatic events (PTEs) before age 11 was associated with a 50% higher risk of marijuana use, an 80% higher risk of nonmedical prescription drug use, and nearly three times (300%) higher risk of cocaine use, compared with adolescents with no history of trauma expsore, the team concluded. The survey also found that 22 percent of the adolescents had used marijuana at some point in their lives; 2 percent had used cocaine, 5 percent had used nonmedical prescription drugs; and 6 percent had used multiple drugs.

The researchers found some evidence that the risk of using marijuana or multiple drugs as a teen increased with increasing numbers of PTEs experienced. They also noted that interpersonal violence (physical assault or abuse, kidnapping or exposure to domestic violence) increased the likelihood of using all the drugs surveyed in the study, even when the scientists accounted for the potential influence of drug use by the children’s parents.

The researchers say that their analysis is the first population-based study to report that traumatic events other than childhood maltreatment are associated with higher risks of adolescent marijuana, cocaine and nonmedical prescription drug use. They suggest that adolescents in this risk group may benefit from interventions that address traumatic memories and coping strategies for dealing with stressful life events.