Background on the Connections
I have come to believe that trauma is the problem, and substance use the solution . . . until the solution becomes the problem.
~ Addictions counsellor

Evidence is building on the contribution of abuse and trauma to mental illness and substance use problems in women, and in turn, the benefits of trauma-informed approaches in reaching and assisting them. A recent Canadian study involving six women’s treatment centres from across Canada found that 90% (n=55/61) of the women interviewed reported childhood or adult abuse histories in relation to their problematic use of alcohol 1. In general it has been noted in the literature that as many as 2/3 of women with substance misuse problems report a concurrent mental health problem such as anxiety and depression, and they also commonly report surviving physical and sexual abuse either as children or adults 2.

The implications of these interconnections are significant and affect not only emotional health and well-being, but all areas of women’s lives including their physical health and mothering. Experiences of violence and trauma are linked to central nervous system changes, sleep disorders, cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal and genito-urinary problems, as well as reproductive and sexual problems. A study of birth mothers of children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome found that 100% had histories of serious sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse and 80% had a major unaddressed mental illness 3. Yet, surprisingly little attention has been given to the needs of mothers with co-occurring mental health disorders and trauma. The image below illustrates how trauma can be central to women’s experience of substance use, mental health problems and experience of ongoing violence.

  1. Brown, C. The pervasiveness of trauma among Canadian women in treatment for alcohol use. in Looking Back, Thinking Ahead: Using Research to Improve Policy and Practice in Women's Health. 2009.
  2. Logan, T., et al., Victimization and substance abuse among women: Contributing factors, interventions and implications. Review of General Psychology, 2002. 6(4): p. 325-397.
  3. Astley, S.J., et al., Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) primary prevention through FAS Diagnosis: II. A comprehensive profile of 80 birth mothers of children with FAS. Alcohol & Alcoholism, 2000. 35(5): p. 509-519.


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