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Sexual Trauma and Addiction: Understanding Child Sexual Abuse and Drug Use

The American Psychological Association reports that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012, 62,939 cases of child sexual abuse (CSA) were reported.

These numbers only reflect documented cases; it is widely accepted that there are many cases that go unreported. CSA has been linked to numerous mental health risk factors such as depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse and addiction.

Linking Child Trauma Survivors and Drug Abuse

While both males and females can be affected by child sexual abuse, the prevalence rate is higher for females. It is estimated that nearly 18-20% of women worldwide have been victimized by CSA. For women, substance use is often used as a means to cope with the painful traumatic memories.

According to the American Journal on Addictions, 75 percent of women who enter substance abuse treatment programs report having experienced sexual abuse.

Another study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, indicated 90 percent of women who became dependent on alcohol were violently abused by a parent or were sexually traumatized as a child. Additionally, youth (both male and female) with a history of child sexual abuse were two to three times more likely to have drug dependence compared to peers who were not traumatized as youth. Some studies indicate that drug abuse is more common than alcohol use in adolescents who have been sexually traumatized.

The age of onset for non-experimental drug use with CSA survivors is around 14, compared to 15 years of age for non-sexually abused peers. Sadly, many youth survivors turn to drugs to help them cope with and mask their past.

Researchers have examined why child trauma survivors may be at an increased risk of drug abuse and findings showed that substances may serve to:

  • Cope with or block out the traumatic memories
  • Deal with feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Improve feelings of self-worth and self-esteem
  • Serve to harm or punish themselves for the sexual abuse
  • Cope with mental problems

Coping With Mental Health Issues

Many CSA survivors suffer from mental health issues and use drugs to cope with mental issues such as:

  • Depression

    Depression can be described as the persistent feeling of deep sadness. Common symptoms include prolonged periods of sadness, feelings of hopelessness, unexplainable and uncontrollable bouts of crying, significant weight loss or gain, lethargy, emotional apathy, or lack of interest and pleasure in previously enjoyed activities. Depression can have negative impact on a person’s day-to-day functioning and can result in poor school and work performance, as well as friendship and relationship problems.

  • Anxiety

    Anxiety is an intense emotional state that results in excessive and persistent fear and worry. With CSA survivors, anxiety could be associated with the profound fear that the abuse will occur again. Some survivors may experience intense fear of going in public and lock themselves in the shelter of their homes. Others may experience, another mental health condition often associated with anxiety, known as panic attacks. Panic attacks are intense and overwhelming surges of anxiety and fear that result in physiological reactions, such as rapid heartbeats, and difficulty breathing.

  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

    PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic event. Symptoms can emerge months or even years after the sexual trauma. Some common symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, intense distress when exposed to sights, sounds, or smells that trigger memories of the trauma, and bodily reactions when reminded of the trauma.

  • Dissociation

    Dissociation, often associated with PTSD, is feeling disconnected or dissociated from one’s body. It can affect a person’s ability to focus, concentrate and function for periods of time. In effort to detach from the sexual trauma, people learn to numb themselves from the pain. Dissociation is often referred to as avoidance coping, because survivors use it as a mechanism to escape and pull away from their past.

The Road to Recovery

The recovery from sexual trauma is a healing journey that takes time. Children who have been traumatized by sexual abuse often report feelings such as shame, terror, depression, and guilt, and sadly, blame themselves for the abuse. Drugs only provide temporary relief and they don’t erase the memories.

Although drugs and alcohol can give survivors a moment of reprieve, there are dangerous risks and high costs to that desired escape.-Raychelle Lohmann

CSA survivors often blame themselves for what happened to them and they want nothing more than to make the pain go away. Although drugs and alcohol can give survivors a moment of reprieve, there are dangerous risks and high costs to that desired escape.

Youth who have been sexually traumatized need to be connected to support groups and need to seek out professional counseling. Unfortunately, youth may not get the help they need, and if they do, they may not be receptive to counseling. These teens are often taken to counseling against their will and put up a wall of resistance. Working through the pain of a traumatic past and along addiction can pose a challenge for mental health practitioners, but it’s not an impossible challenge. Help is just what these teens need most to begin the healing process.

Sexual abuse not only leaves psychological scars, but it can lead to dangerous risk-taking behaviors, like using drugs. Substances are only a temporary fix and they can’t erase the past. Fortunately, dark moments don’t have to last and drugs don’t have to conceal the past. Survivors can learn healthy coping skills and become a beacon of hope to youth who travel a similar path toward healing.



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