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Many Alcoholics Suffered Childhood Trauma: Study

THURSDAY March 15, 2012 -- A history of childhood trauma is common among people undergoing treatment for alcoholism and may be a factor in the development of the disorder, a new study indicates.

Childhood trauma can include sexual, physical and emotional abuse, as well physical or emotional neglect, according to the study published online and in the June print issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The study included 196 men and women undergoing inpatient detoxification and treatment for alcohol dependence.

Among the findings:

  • Patients being treated for alcoholism were likely to have experienced one or more types of childhood abuse or neglect.
  • Sexual abuse was associated with an increased likelihood of anxiety disorders in addition to alcoholism, while emotional abuse was associated with an increased likelihood of depression.
  • Alcoholics who experienced childhood physical abuse may be more likely to have a history of suicide attempts.
  • Alcoholics who experienced more than one type of abuse or neglect are especially at risk for developing a psychiatric disorder or for attempting suicide.

Previous studies have found that alcoholics have higher self-reported rates of physical and sexual abuse in childhood than people in the general population, Markus Heilig, clinical director at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in a journal news release.

"A recent national survey estimated rates of 8.4 percent for physical abuse and 6 percent for sexual abuse in the general population," Heilig said.

"Among alcoholic patients, rates for physical abuse were reported at 24 percent and 33 percent for men and women, respectively, while rates for sexual abuse were reported at 12 percent and 49 percent for men and women, respectively," he added. "Importantly, 5 percent of men and 23 percent of women experienced both types of abuse, physical and sexual, suggesting that co-occurrence of different abuse types may be important as well."

But, he added, much less is known about rates of other types of abuse and neglect, especially emotional abuse and physical and emotional neglect.

"Because emotional abuse is difficult to define, and is greatly under-reported compared to physical and sexual abuse, true rates of emotional abuse are unknown," Heilig said. "Many recent studies have linked childhood emotional abuse and neglect to the same long-term consequences as physical and sexual abuse, such as increased rates of depression, anxiety and even suicide."

Heilig said the findings "demonstrate that childhood emotional abuse is nearly as prevalent among alcoholic patients as physical and sexual abuse, which is important because it helps to show that emotionally abused children, like those that have been physically or sexually abused, can develop behavioral and other health problems in adulthood."

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more about alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Posted: March 2012


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