Childhood Trauma Associated With Lifetime Drug Use in Teens Interview with:

Hannah Carliner, ScD MPH Post Doctoral Fellow in Substance Abuse Epidemiology Mailman School of Public Health Columbia University

Dr. Hannah Carliner

Hannah Carliner, ScD MPH
Post Doctoral Fellow in Substance Abuse Epidemiology
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Carliner: We know from previous research that traumatic experiences in childhood can have far-reaching effects on the mental and physical health of adults, including increasing the risk for substance use disorders. There is a particularly strong body of evidence about this concerning exposure to child abuse and various other forms of family dysfunction and violence.

However, no previous studies have examined a wider range of traumatic childhood experiences and their link to experimentation with different kinds of drugs in adolescence. While some studies have interviewed adults about initiation of drug use at this age, those results are not as reliable as interviewing teens directly.

Using a nationally-representative sample of almost 10,000 non-institutionalized U.S. adolescents, we therefore determined that childhood trauma was associated with lifetime drug use in teens– not only with clinically-significant disordered drug use, but even with just trying drugs one time. What should readers take away from your report?

Dr. Carliner: Physical and sexual assault and witnessing domestic violence are particularly harmful to children. But traumatic accidents, natural disasters, and physical illness may also be linked to cocaine and other drug use among teens. Coping with these traumatic memories may lead teens to try to self-medicate by using psychoactive drugs. Caregivers, teachers, and clinicians should be aware of this possible consequence of trauma that may have been experienced years earlier, so they can try to direct teens towards productive coping strategies for dealing with current stress, rather than use of illicit drugs. Moreover, teens who develop drug use problems may benefit from trauma-focused treatment that directly addresses this history, above and beyond standard substance use treatment best practices. Addressing drug use among adolescents with a history of childhood trauma has the potential to halt a domino effect of negative behavioral, social, and health outcomes that are often associated with these traumatic experiences. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Carliner: First and foremost, epidemiological and intervention studies should determine the most effective ways to prevent perpetration of violence against children and others. Unfortunately, we will never prevent all forms of trauma, so future research should continue to explore whether any of these patterns of associations between specific types of trauma and use of specific drugs persist in other samples, in order to inform treatment and interventions.

Studies should also explore both the risk and protective pathways between exposure to trauma and early drug use, and how socio-environmental factors such as peer groups, social norms, and drug availability may affect this trajectory into adulthood. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


1. Hannah Carliner, Katherine M. Keyes, Katie A. McLaughlin, Jacquelyn L. Meyers, Erin C. Dunn, Silvia S. Martins. Childhood Trauma and Illicit Drug Use in Adolescence: A Population-Based National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent Supplement Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2016; DOI:10.1016/j.jaac.2016.05.010

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Last Updated on June 11, 2016 by Marie Benz MD FAAD