A study published in the August issue of the journal Addiction and summarized on PsychCentral by Richard Taite looked at the impact of second-hand trauma on later substance abuse. Researchers looked for traumatic medical events in the families of 1.4 million children born in Sweden between 1984 and 1995 by examining hospital discharge records. They were able to identify children who had a parent or a sibling who had been diagnosed with cancer or an immediate family member who suffered an injury which resulted in permanent disability or who had been a victim of assault or who had died. They then assigned each child a score of 0-4 depending on the amount of secondhand trauma s/he experienced. Then the researchers turned to medical, legal and pharmacy records to see which of these children were diagnosed with substance abuse problems when they reached their 20’s.
The researchers took care to control for other factors that might promote substance use, such as socioeconomic status, drug use by family members, psychological wellbeing and parents’ educational level. What they found was striking: Children who experienced even one of the four secondhand traumas under study had twice the risk of later drug abuse. Children who experienced the death of a parent were at greatest risk. Having a parent or sibling who was the victim of violent assault was the second most powerful factor. The PsychCentral report points out that “substance abuse was even higher in children whose siblings had experienced trauma than it was in children whose parents had been traumatized”. The authors of the study had high confidence in their findings since they were able to conduct annual sampling of a national population over a period 16 years and because they had access to multiple data sources in order to identify cases of substance use disorders.
Of course, previous studies have noted the impact of adverse childhood events (ACEs) on childrens’ emotional development. As I explained in another post researchers have found that people who endure a great deal of toxic stress spend much of their lives in fight, flight or fright. As the ACEs Too High Newsletter explained in October 2012: