Childhood abuse and chronic parental domestic violence fuels substance addictions later in life

Adults who have alcohol or other drug dependency have experienced very high rates of early adversities, according to a new study published by researchers at the University of Toronto.

  • One in five drug dependent Canadian adults and one in six alcohol dependent adults were survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This compares to one in 19 in the general population.
  • More than one half of substance abusers had been physically abused in childhood compared to one-quarter of those who were not addicted.
  • After accounting for mental illness, poverty and social support, both sexual and physical abuse were associated with double the risks of drug dependence.

The risks of alcohol dependency among those who witnessed their parents’ chronic domestic violence were about 50% higher than those without that exposure, and these odds were similar in magnitude to that of childhood sexual abuse.

  • One in seven adults with drug dependence or alcohol dependence had been exposed to chronic parental domestic violence. This compares to one in 25 in the general population.

Parental domestic violence was considered ‘chronic’ if it occurred 11 or more times before the respondent was age 16.”

Further research is needed to understand the pathways through which witnessing chronic parental domestic violence and childhood maltreatment during the respondent’s childhood may increase the prevalence of alcohol and other drug dependence across the life course. One assumption is: Chronic chaotic and violent home environment may predispose individuals to turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of coping.

The study was based upon a representative sample of 21,544 adult Canadians drawn from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health components. At some point in their life, 628 of these respondents had been dependent upon drugs and 849 had been dependent upon alcohol.

Other significant predictors of both alcohol and drug dependence include lower levels of education, poverty, being male, being single as opposed to married, and a history of depression and/or anxiety disorders.