The Link Between Substance Use and Violence in Young People

The Link Between Substance Use and Violence in Young People

January 4th, 2015 Drug Addictions, Helpful Articles

Excessive alcohol consumption and illicit/illegal drug use are both linked to increased risks for exposure to violent behavior and perpetration of violent behavior. Several factors help explain this connection in various population groups. In a study published in September 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of American researchers used an evaluation of young people who receive treatment in emergency rooms to explore the connection between substance use and violence in this age group. These researchers concluded that diagnosable, untreated substance use disorder (substance abuse/addiction) plays an important role in fostering violence in young people.

Substance Use and Violence

Numerous studies support the statistical link between illicit/illegal drug consumption and increased participation in violent behavior. For example, findings summarized by the World Health Organization indicate that roughly one-third (35 percent) of city-dwelling, young-adult methamphetamine consumers in the U.S. act violently while using the drug. Drug use may also play a role in most of the acts of intimate partner violence committed by men, as well as a significant minority of the acts of intimate partner violence perpetrated by women. Excessive alcohol consumption has an even closer association with the commission of acts of intimate partner violence, as well as other forms of aggressive or overtly violent behavior.

Drug use and excessive alcohol use also increase the odds that any given person will be a victim of violence. For example, women who use heroin and cocaine are statistically more likely to experience intimate partner violence than women who don’t use these or other “hard” drugs. When women are in new relationships, consumption of the “soft” drug marijuana/cannabis can also increase the odds of experiencing intimate partner violence.

Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder is comprehensive condition used by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to diagnose all cases of alcohol-, drug- or medication-related substance addiction and damaging, non-addiction-based substance abuse. In May 2013, this condition officially replaced the APA’s separately maintained definitions for substance addiction and substance abuse. Underlying this shift is the fact that the symptoms of addiction and abuse form a continuous spectrum with no logical cutoff point. In real-world terms, this means that symptoms of substance abuse can easily appear in a person primarily affected by addiction; it also means that symptoms of addiction can easily appear in a person primarily affected by substance abuse. The larger category of substance use disorder contains subcategories for each substance recognized as a common source of abuse/addiction, including alcohol, opioid drugs and medications, cannabis/marijuana, stimulant drugs and medications, inhalants, hallucinogens, nicotine/tobacco and sedative-hypnotic medications (i.e., sedatives, tranquilizers and anxiolytics).

What’s the Link in Young People?

In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of Michigan, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brown University and several other institutions used an assessment of 600 young people receiving treatment in a city-based emergency room to explore the link between substance use and violence in this segment of the population. All of the study participants were between the ages of 14 and 24 and had a recent history of using at least one substance. Three hundred fifty of the participants had been injured by acts of violence, while the remaining 250 participants had not.

When the researchers considered the two groups together, they found that 57 percent of the study participants had symptoms that would qualify them for an alcohol-based diagnosis of substance use disorder or a drug-/medication-based diagnosis of substance use disorder. Unfortunately, the researchers also concluded that just 9 percent of the participants had ever received any form of treatment for their substance-related conditions. Compared to the group unaffected by acts of violence, the violence-affected group abused substances at a higher rate, had generally lower levels of emotional/psychological well-being and had higher chances of previously visiting an emergency room for mental health- or violence-related issues. Twenty-five percent of the violence-affected group stated their intention to seek revenge for the acts perpetrated upon them. In addition, the violence-affected group had higher rates for the trauma-related mental illness PTSD, as well as higher rates of prior involvement in the criminal justice system.

All told, the study’s authors believe that untreated substance use disorder and other untreated mental health issues may play an important part in explaining the level of violent behavior in young people who consume drugs/medications or alcohol.

By Gideon Hoyle

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