Childhood Trauma Linked to Substance Use Problems in Students

Marijuana Abuse. Image (c) Doug Menuez / Getty Images

Students are one of the highest risk groups for substance use, and related problems, with rates of substance use disorder at around double that of the general population. A variety of reasons for this has been suggested, and supported, by research. One of the most important to address is that of childhood trauma, because if trauma can be treated, it may prevent substance use problems becoming a lifelong struggle.

In addition, if substance use persists throughout the college or university years, it can have a detrimental effect on academic performance, with negative consequences that can affect the student's future career.

Although it may not be widely known, the rates of childhood trauma among students are shockingly high, with studies reporting over 75% of students having experienced a traumatic adverse event in their household during childhood.

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While abuse was always considered harmful, not all of the traumatic events reported involved abuse, and non-abuse traumas were not always considered by the student to have been harmful to the student (for example, parents divorcing may have provided some relief from being exposed to arguments in the home). The most common traumas were being in serious accidents, such as a car accident, accident at work, or somewhere else and experiencing a natural disaster such as a tornado, flood, or major earthquake.

One group of researchers followed the traumatized students for three years, from when they first entered college. They found that students who used alcohol as part of a negative pattern of coping had worse post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, despite the likelihood that alcohol was being used to alleviate these problems.

It appeared that the circumstances of these students actually worsened as the alcohol took its toll.

Another study looked at a range of substances used by traumatized female students, and found substance use was common. About a third of students used marijuana (and this did not include "experimental use" of less than four times), about a quarter used prescription medication for non-medical reasons (again, not including experimental use) and 8% of the sample in this used other illicit drugs. A history of trauma was associated with marijuana use and frequency of alcohol use, and those students whose trauma was significant enough to meet the criteria for PTSD also had higher rates of non-medical pain medication use.

Read: Managing Your Pain Medication Use

The results of this study showed that the widest variety of substances were taken in conjunction with behavioral avoidance symptoms of PTSD, indicating that substance use may be a form of avoidance for some traumatized students, rather than simply a form of self-medication.

If you have experienced a traumatic event, effective treatments are available. They will reduce the risk that you will develop and substance use disorder, as well as free you to focus on your studies.


Avant, E., Davis, J. & Cranston, C. Posttraumatic Stress Symptom Clusters,Trauma History, and Substance Use among College Students. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 20:539–555, 2011.

 Calmes, Stephanie M.; Laux, John M.; Scott, Holly L.; Reynolds, Jennifer L.; Roseman, Christopher P.; Piazza, Nick J. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling. Oct2013, Vol. 34 Issue 2, p70-80. Childhood Psychological Trauma and First-Year College Students' Substance Dependence

Read, Jennifer P. Griffin, Melissa J. Wardell, Jeffrey D. Ouimette, Paige ; Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Vol 28(4), Dec 2014. pp. 1052-1064.Coping, PTSD symptoms, and alcohol involvement in trauma-exposed college students in the first three years of college.

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