How to Help Self-Medicating Assault Victims

4 min read · 2 sections

Though people may drink or use drugs as a way to self-medicate painful emotions, those who have experienced trauma are more likely to do so in response to significant feelings of pain and helplessness that result from the event.1 Not only does trauma or PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) increase the likelihood that a person will abuse substances (and potentially develop an addiction), it can also make it more difficult for them to stop using drugs or alcohol once they’ve started.2

Many people—both men and women, children and adults—have experienced a physical assault. National surveys have indicated that as many as 4 out of 10 kids in the U.S. have been physically assaulted within the past year. National statistics have also revealed that 53% of males have experienced an aggravated assault by a stranger, while 52.4% of women experienced an aggravated assault by a non-stranger (which could include an intimate partner, relative, or friend/acquaintance).3,4

Breaking it down by ethnicity, American Indians, Alaska Natives, black Non-Hispanics, and Hispanics have all reported higher rates of aggravated assault than white non-Hispanics. American Indians and Alaska Natives are at the top of the list with 8.6 reported assaults per 1,000 people.4

Learning about the interrelationship between substance abuse and trauma can help you or someone you care about who may be self-medicating due to a traumatizing physical assault. In this article, you will learn about:

  • How substance abuse and trauma are linked.
  • Effective treatment methods.

How Substance Abuse and Trauma Are Linked

Although research has produced mixed results about whether sexual or physical abuse is more likely to lead to substance use, most studies agree that any kind of trauma is a key factor in the development of substance abuse problems.5,6 Trauma takes an enormous toll on a person’s ability to cope and can drain their inner resources.

Trauma that results from physical assault has shown to be a strong risk factor for drug and alcohol abuse. A study of high-risk adolescent girls noted that being physically assaulted with a weapon was linked to a higher rate of marijuana use and corresponded to a higher number of overall drugs used.5 Results from this study also showed that sexual abuse increased the rate of marijuana use, alcohol use, number of drugs used, and other alcohol and drug-related problems.5

Effective Treatment Methods

Treatment should address both the trauma as well as the substance abuse problem at the same time. This approach is known as trauma-informed care. A report by the National Trauma Consortium indicated that a number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of integrated treatment methods for trauma in reducing substance abuse and related problems, such as PTSD and general mental health issues.9

Trauma-informed treatment is a strengths-based approach, meaning the focus is on your natural strengths as opposed to areas in which you struggle. It is designed to acknowledge the role that trauma has played in your life and work toward the goal of providing you with opportunities for empowerment to help re-establish a sense of control over your life—something that is often lost after an assault. This is accomplished by allowing you to actively participate in and make decisions about your treatment. A particular emphasis is placed on establishing feelings of safety throughout the process to actively avoid re-traumatization.6

Because people who self-medicate in response to the trauma of a physical assault often don’t have better skills to manage their feelings of anxiety or depression, one of the ways in which a trauma-informed approach can help is by teaching them to use “self-soothing techniques, rather than drugs, to alleviate anxiety and depression.”11

Regardless of where you receive help, it is possible to recover from a traumatizing physical assault and the resulting emotional effects and struggles with substance abuse you may suffer.

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