Claire Foster Blog

Substance use disorder is a mental health issue. Although public policy largely focuses on separating people from addictive substances, the disorder begins “between your ears.” Facing addiction means changing the factors that create demand for substances, not just eliminating the substances themselves.

In a recent op-ed at The Hill, Lynn R. Webster, MD pointed out that lack of secure attachment or stable relationships could lead to higher rates of substance use. He wrote, “Back in the 1940’s, renowned scholar and psychologist Abraham Maslow defined security as an essential human need. Only physiological survival requirements such as food and shelter are more important. The absence of, or the threat to, security can cause anxiety, tension, and post-traumatic stress disorder with maladaptive behaviors.”

Webster is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. He pointed out that psychological trauma, especially at a young age, sets people up for “potentially deadly drug abuse later in life.” Webster said that childhood trauma creates wounds that do not heal.

Childhood NostalgiaWebster pointed out that this kind of emotional trauma is a catalyst for substance use disorder. One of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) associated with “a wide range of physical and mental health problems throughout a person’s lifespan” including chronic pain, substance use disorders, depression, aggressive behavior, and post traumatic stress disorder. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, unusually difficult childhood experiences lead to a higher ACE score. The higher a child’s score, the greater the health risks.

There is ample research to support the link between abuse and neglect during childhood, and health problems as adults. In a TED talk, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explained that we don’t just “get over” childhood trauma. Those formative experiences can triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer over a person’s lifetime.

Webster said, “In addition, childhood trauma may contribute to drug abuse. Suppressing the memories of the emotional trauma may create a demand for relief. Drugs may become the means to achieve that goal.”

It is possible to build a world that is safer, more stable, and supportive. Preventing overdoses starts with raising healthy, happy children—instead of perpetuating stressful conditions sow the seeds of addiction in the next generation.

Although treating the acute symptoms of substance use disorder is critical to saving lives today, recovery advocates take a long term view as well. Policy change, access to medical care and peer support, and destigmatizing addiction are all critical to ensuring people’s future health.