UVM Study Finds Childhood Emotional Abuse Linked To Opioid Use Later In Life

Mar 24, 2017

Emotional abuse during childhood is linked to misuse of opioids in adulthood, according to a recent University of Vermont study.

The researchers interviewed 84 Vermont adults with substance abuse issues, and asked them about past traumas. The study found that those who suffered childhood emotional abuse were more likely to have misused opioids as adults — even more likely than those who had suffered physical abuse or sexual abuse.

Emotional abuse is defined as when family members say hurtful things to a child, such as "you're not worth anything" or "you're not smart."

"We think that emotional abuse specifically sort of undermines a person's ability to cope with negative experiences or negative thoughts," says Matthew Price, a professor in the department of psychological science at UVM, and the lead researcher.

"Typically when you look at folks who have post-traumatic stress disorder, they are often ... taking active steps to avoid things that would remind them of what had happened to them, and in doing so sometimes one of the maladaptive strategies they can look for — a not-so-great strategy — is using substances."

Price says that childhood emotional abuse was correlated with more significant post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, which then can lead to substance abuse.

However, many of these types of abuse often occur together, Price says.  

"The majority of these types of experiences are highly comorbid, meaning that if you're likely to have one type of childhood maltreatment, you're also likely have other types of childhood treatment as well," he says. "When we account for all that, it does seem emotional abuse had strongest link to substance abuse related problems, above and beyond the other types."

Price says one of the takeaways of the study is the importance of treating a person's mental health conditions alongside his or her substance abuse problems.

"Many of them reported symptoms of depression and social anxiety and generalized anxiety," says Price. "And I think if we are not able to address those co-occurring conditions as well as their addiction, we're going to have a real hard time treating their addiction."