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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Pitt Researchers Link Trauma With Adolescent Alcohol Abuse

PITTSBURGH, November 24, 1997 — The majority of adolescents with alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse may have been exposed to traumatic events such as physical violence or sexual abuse, say researchers at the Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.

According to Duncan Clark, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, many 14- to 18-year-olds who have alcohol problems suffered from more than one traumatic event. Results of a study he and his colleagues conducted are published in the December Journal of the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry.

The study’s findings suggest alcohol and drug prevention programs may be particularly relevant for adolescents who have been physically or sexually abused.

"This study suggests that teen-agers who go through physical or sexual abuse are at risk for developing alcohol or drug problems," Dr. Clark said. "If we can concentrate some efforts on prevention, we may be able to help these adolescents steer away from substance abuse."

In the United States, 5 percent of adolescents meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence. In the study group of 183 adolescents with alcohol dependence or abuse and 73 community control adolescents, the Pitt researchers found that those who had problems with alcohol were 6 to 12 times more likely to have a history of physical abuse and 18 to 21 times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse. Sexual abuse was more common in girls, while other physical violence was more common in boys.

"We found that many of these adolescents are involved in a vicious cycle," commented Dr. Clark. "Some painful experiences in a child’s life may contribute to alcohol abuse while alcohol use contributes to further traumas."

Other researchers who contributed to the study were Lynne Lesnick, M.S., of the University of Pittsburgh and Andrea M. Hegedus, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan.


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