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Child abuse: A strong indicator for dual diagnosis

It gets used incorrectly a lot when writing about mental disease: victims of schizophrenia, victims of depression, and so on.

It’s wrong, chiefly because in many cases of mental disorders there’s no crime involved. Mental disorders develop in a variety of ways – genetic, environmental and biological.

However, there are cases where the word “victim” is perfectly accurate: The victims of childhood abuse and trauma. Neglect, violence and other forms of abuse experienced in one’s formative years become a wound that won’t close. It causes problems and issues that plague its victims throughout their lives – a 2011 study conducted by Stanford University found children who had been abused had higher rates of mental health disorders and obesity.

Worse, childhood trauma is strongly linked with substance abuse. The Adverse Childhood Experience Study, a collaborative effort between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, found links between severe childhood stress and every type of addiction.

Substance abuse, when combined with a mental disorder, is known as a dual diagnosis. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports around half of the individuals with a severe mental illness also deal with substance abuse.

Child abuse physically changes the brain

So why can’t people just move on from the bad things that happened when they were younger? For one thing, research has shown childhood trauma can cause actual physical changes in the brain.

In 2012, researchers from Harvard University and Northeastern University in Boston recruited nearly 200 people aged between 18 and 25 for a study on “memories of childhood.” The researchers wanted to specifically study the effects of abuse and neglect, so people who experienced other forms of trauma like traffic accidents and gang violence were excluded from the study.

The researchers found around 25 percent of their subjects had suffered major depression at one point in their lives, and 7 percent had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. However, they also found 16 percent of their subjects had suffered three or more types of child abuse, such as physical abuse, verbal abuse and neglect. Of that group, a majority had experienced depression and 40 percent had PTSD.

Scans of those subjects’ brains revealed physical changes as well. The subjects who had been mistreated in youth showed volume reductions in parts of the hippocampus, as well as in other areas of the brain. The results are similar to those found in previous studies.

Addiction’s biological components are well-known, and a study conducted in 2010 on rodents found a connection between smaller hippocampi and addiction.

Treating victims of child abuse

According to Mayo Clinic, psychotherapy – also known as talk therapy – can both help victims of child abuse learn to trust others again as well as helping them learn about normal behavior, healthy relationships, conflict management and how to boost their self-esteem.

Psychotherapy also helps patients discover the roots of the abuse, new ways of handling frustrations and even parenting strategies. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common tool in treatment for victims of abuse. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is a useful form of psychotherapy for children.

The combination of substance abuse and a mental disorder sounds daunting, but both conditions respond well to treatment. Left untreated, they can bring even more misery into a life that’s already seen more than its fair share of suffering. Sovereign Health of Texas is an comprehensive treatment provider for dual diagnoses. Our experts treat their patients as individuals, tailoring their care to ensure the best chance at a lasting recovery. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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