Opioid epidemic linked to childhood emotional abuse: Study

Results of the study could lead to new approaches for treating opioid misuse and addiction in adults.
By Amy Wallace   |   March 14, 2017 at 12:10 PM

March 14 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Vermont have identified an association between childhood emotional abuse and opioid abuse in adults.

Previous studies have linked child abuse and opioid addiction in adulthood, but did not identify the specific cause of the opioid addiction.

For the new study, a team of researchers analyzed the results of a series of psychological tests given to 84 participants with a history of opioid abuse and childhood trauma.

The study showed childhood emotional abuse was more strongly connected to opioid misuse than sexual or physical abuse in childhood.

Children who had been emotionally abused were more likely to engage in risky behavior in adolescence and have post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as adults, researchers said.

"If a person is being physically or sexually abused, it's easier to put the blame on the person doing the abuse," Matthew Price, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Vermont, said in a press release. "With emotional abuse, the abuser is saying 'You are the problem.' Being called names, being told you're not good enough, being told no one cares about you undermines your ability to cope with difficult emotions. To protect themselves from strong emotions and from trauma cues that can bring on PTSD symptoms, people with this kind of childhood experience frequently adopt a strategy of avoidance, which can include opioid use."

Researchers suggest this is the reason some opioid abusers do not respond to substance abuse counseling, and that more mental health counseling could be effective for those individuals.

"Mental health counselors will frequently say, 'Deal with your drug issues first, then come see me,'" Price said. "We should really start to explore more integrated treatment. If a patient has had severe emotional abuse and they have a tendency to act out when they're feeling upset, and then they turn to opioids to deal with the resulting PTSD, it makes sense to address the emotional component and the drug problems at the same time."

The study was published in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

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