The Role of Substance Abuse in the Lives of Childhood Trauma Survivors

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Linda Grabbe, PhD, PMHN-BC, FNP-BC
School of Nursing, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, Atlanta, GA
Weihua Zhang, PhD, APRN
Adult and Elder Health Department, School of Nursing, Emory University, Atlanta, GA


Traumatic events early in life have been associated with substance abuse problems and mental health disorders (Adverse childhood experiences study, 2013).  The development of addictions is a result of complex interactions among genes, environment, chronic stress, and neurobiology (Stephens & Wand, 2012).  For persons who have experienced severe childhood abuse or neglect, there are fundamental changes in brain development (DeBellis et al., 1999), and many individuals deal with lifelong mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and emotion dysregulation.  One theory of substance use associated with mental distress is “self-medication,” that is, persons with mental health conditions use substances for short-term benefit--relief from stress and psychological pain.

This qualitative, descriptive study aims 1) to summarize critical childhood events for a sample of 8 women trauma survivors, who were in treatment for addiction, and 2) to identify the experience and meanings of substance use in their lives.


Life narratives of 8 women trauma survivors in recovery from addiction were audiorecorded and transcribed. The transcripts were coded, summarized, and clustered into themes. NVivo software was used for data management.  The different meanings of trauma and drugs and alcohol use will be presented.


These women experienced significant levels of abuse and neglect during childhood.  Alcohol was predominantly the first substance they used. Early adolescence was marked by a lack of nurturance from significant figures, leaving home, and early involvement in drug or street culture.  The perceptions of the women regarding their drug use will be presented. 


Insights gained from this research may serve to inform preventative interventions for both mental health and substance use disorders in this high-risk population.