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Exposure to Violence Linked to Substance Use in Teens

(The Nemours Foundation) Children and teens who witness violence or who are victims of violence in their communities are more likely to use dangerous substances such as cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs, say researchers from Belgium, Russia, and the United States.

A total of 958 Belgian teens, 1,036 Russian teens, and 1,386 American teens between 14 and 17 years old participated in a survey of violence exposure and substance use. Teens were asked to identify whether they had ever been beaten up or mugged, threatened, shot or shot at with a gun, attacked or stabbed with a knife, chased by gangs or individuals, or seriously wounded in a violent incident. In addition, teens were asked whether they had ever witnessed the same events. Teens were also asked whether and how often they smoked, used marijuana, drank alcohol, or used other drugs such as stimulants, heroin, and LSD. Finally, teens were asked whether they had started a fist fight, participated in a gang fight, hurt someone badly in a fight, or carried a weapon in the past year.

In all three countries, teens who were exposed to more violence had higher rates of smoking, alcohol use, marijuana use, and other drug use. Exposure to violence in the United States was not as strongly related to substance use as it was in Russia or Belgium.

What This Means to You: Although the results of this study do not prove cause and effect, they suggest that teens who are exposed to violence may be more likely to turn to the use of dangerous substances such as cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. If your child has been a victim of or has witnessed violence, involving your child’s doctor or a mental health professional such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist may help your child cope with the after effects of his experiences in a more healthy way.

Source: Robert Vermeiren, MD; Mary Schwab-Stone, MD; Dirk Deboutte, MD, PhD; Peter E. Leckman; Vladislav Ruchkin, MD, PhD; Pediatrics, March 2003

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2003

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