Traumatic Events Linked to Sharp Increase in Drug and Alcohol Abuse

By Dirk Hanson 06/14/11

Drug abusers and heavy drinkers are more likely to ramp up their intake after natural disasters.

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It could happen to you.
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It has always made intuitive sense, and now it has strong scientific backing: Disasters, both man-made and natural, make people drink heavily and take more drugs—especially people with prior histories of substance abuse. On the website of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD), a recent look at the problem examines research about various traumatic events, from Hurricane Katrina to assorted floods, fires, tornados, and crashes. Drinking and drugging go hand-in-hand with events of this kind, which is not hard to understand. For example, a Swiss study of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 showed that substance abuse increased among the survivors. Go figure. However, as the CPDD website summarizes one such survey: “The study concluded that alcohol drinking increased primarily in individuals who used alcohol as a coping mechanism prior to the traumatic event.” In other words, alcoholics are first in line among the people likely to drink more in the wake of a trauma.

A recent analysis of people living within 5 miles of New York’s World Trade Center at the time of the attack “indicated that substance abuse disorder diagnosis rate from September 11—December 31 was proportional to proximity to the attack site: people living within 5 miles of the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks were 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with a substance abuse problem than people living 30 miles away.” Prior to the attacks, the diagnosis rate over a similar time interval had been exactly the opposite—the closer you lived to the World Trade Center, the less likely you were to be diagnosed as a substance abuser.

Dr. Gabor Maté, a well-known Canadian addiction researcher, notes that the relationship between emotional stress and disease is still a battleground in the medical field. On the Democracy Now website, Dr. Maté has said he believes that “many doctors seem to have forgotten what was once a commonplace assumption, that emotions are deeply implicated in both the development of illness, addictions and disorders, and in their healing.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]