Early trauma blamed for kids becoming addicts

Many children who end up abusing drugs and alcohol experienced some sort of trauma between the ages of 0-5 but are rarely diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and are instead labelled with having some form of conduct disorder.

Dr Sharon Lambert, a lecturer at the School of Applied Psychology, University College Cork, said children who presented as “very aggressive and difficult because they don’t engage” were “more likely to get a diagnosis of conduct disorder or opposition defiant disorder (ODD)” when in fact what psychologists should be looking for was evidence of trauma in their lives.

Dr Lambert, who conducted research on the files of 93 young people using an addiction service in the Munster area, said it was obvious to her after reviewing their developmental histories and having “looked at their lives between the age of 0-5” that many had experienced significant trauma, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse. But psychologists, when diagnosing, tended to use the medical model of assigning labels such as ODD or conduct disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which Dr Lambert said “weren’t particularly beneficial to the children in question”.

“What they are saying is ‘you’re a very bad boy or a very bad girl and it’s not mammy and daddy’s fault. You have a label now and you can carry that label with you and you can use it to justify your own behaviour’,” Dr Lambert said.

Dr Lambert, who was delivering a workshop at the 5th National Child Protection and Welfare Social Work conference at UCC yesterday, entitled ‘Cherishing All of the Children of the Nation Equally? 100 Years and Beyond’, said an issue of ongoing concern was the tendency to send children with addiction problems from pillar to post instead of providing the range of services they needed.

“What really annoys me is when a young person comes to me at age 16 and 17 years and it’s very obvious they have mental health issues and then I try get them mental health support and somebody will say ‘Oh, it’s because they have a drug and alcohol problem’. And I say ‘Well, they’ve been using drugs and alcohol since they were 14 but they’ve been self harming since they were 11 so which came first?’ But no, they have a drug and alcohol problem. If they didn’t choose drugs and alcohol, they wouldn’t have a mental health problem,” Dr Lambert said.

In her talk, entitled ‘Adolescent Substance Abuse: Whose Problem is it anyway?, Dr Lambert concluded that it was “everybody’s problem”.


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