Substance Abuse & Domestic Violence
Contributor Sara Eldridge, LMSW, is the Assisstant Director of Social Services at Barrier Free Living’s Freedom House domestic violence shelter. Sara is a licensed social worker who received a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in 2015. Sara has been a social worker at Freedom House since 2015, where she provides individual and group counseling to adults, children and adolescents. Prior to Freedom House she worked with youth in alternatives to detention and incarceration programs, student veterans and crime victims.
Intense substance abuse, such as drinking and drug use, can be associated with erratic, risky behavior. It can also be linked to acts of violence, including domestic violence.
Substance abuse has also been linked to domestic violence in another way. Statistics show that victims of domestic violence, particularly those who have disabilities, are at an increased risk of abusing substances.
Women who have experienced intimate partner violence are two to six times more likely to abuse substances such as cocaine, alcohol and marijuana.
Among women who sought treatment for substance abuse in the past year, 31% to 67% reported experiencing domestic violence. Similarly, among women who sought domestic violence services 25% to 65% reported using substances. (Source: Complex Connections: Intimate Partner Violence and Women’s Substance Use and Recovery by Carole
Warshaw, M.D. at the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health.)
There are several reasons that survivors of domestic violence may misuse substances. At Barrier Free Living’s programs (BFL Apartments, Freedom House, Secret Garden) we recognize the need to address potential substance abuse issues as part of the healing process.
Substances may act as a coping mechanism to help survivors manage trauma reactions, particularly if they are already experiencing symptoms of mental illness. For example, a survivor who feels anxious or hypervigilant as a result of the abuse may habitually use marijuana to help them relax.
Substances can also help survivors numb their feelings, such as drinking to the point of blacking out. When a survivor feels like they can’t leave the abusive situation, abusing substances can provide temporary relief. If an abuser denies a disabled survivor access to medical care, substances such as alcohol or marijuana may be their only option to treat symptoms of physical or mental illness.
Abusers may also use substances as a way to control survivors. For example, abusers may coerce survivors to use substances before forcing them to engage in criminal behavior like dealing drugs or sex work. Abusers may also sabotage recovery efforts or threaten to report a survivor’s substance abuse to the police or child protective services.
The people we work with who have a substance disorder receive on-site case management and counseling support from behavioral health coordinators for their recovery at our BFL Apartments supportive housing program.
It should be noted that substance abuse can also increase a survivors’ vulnerability to domestic violence. They may have less awareness of their surroundings and be less able to defend themselves during an abusive incident, or conversely be more likely to respond aggressively when assaulted.
Substance abusers may get involved in domestic violence relationships with people who provide them with drugs or engage in drug use with them. Someone who can’t maintain a job or stable housing as a result of their substance use may enter a domestic violence relationship with someone who provides them with financial resources or a place to stay.
• People with physical and mental disabilities are two to four times more likely to experience substance abuse than the general population.
• Nearly 50% of people with traumatic brain injuries or spinal cord injuries have a substance abuse problem.
• People who are Deaf, have arthritis or multiple sclerosis have substance abuse rates at least twice that of the general population (source: Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation).
• In 2014, 39% of adults diagnosed with a substance use disorder were also diagnosed with a mental illness, representing 18.2% of adults diagnosed with a mental illness (source: SAMHSA). Among individuals who are diagnosed with a serious mental illness, like schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder, approximately 1 in 4 also have a substance use disorder (source: National Institute on Drug Abuse).