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Substance Addiction and Sexual Violence

Venn diagram, with purple circle that says Sexual Violence overlapping with orange circle that says Substance Addiction

How BARCC Is Working to Support Survivors Struggling with Addiction

For decades, the issue of drug and alcohol use and addiction has been part of national dialogue, debate, and media coverage. And increasingly that’s true for sexual violence, too. At BARCC, we see and navigate the many connections between the two issues on a daily basis—so much so that, with new funding, we recently embarked on efforts to increase our support for survivors struggling with addiction.

One area of our work where substance use and addiction comes up on a regular basis is in our counseling services. “As clinicians at BARCC, we see many survivors with co-occuring mental health and substance use struggles,” explains Danielle B., a BARCC clinician.

Connections

When exploring the intersections of these issues, it’s good to first revisit some fundamentals: If someone is incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol, they can’t consent. Sexual contact without consent is sexual violence. And sexual violence is never a survivor’s fault.

Over the years, research has uncovered significant relationships between sexual violence and substance use and addiction. For example, survivors are several times more likely than non-survivors to use drugs, from marijuana to cocaine. For more information, read the Substance Use and Sexual Violence report by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), which explores these issues in more depth.

Risk factors

While anyone can experience sexual violence, people struggling with addictions can be at greater risk. PCAR explains the dynamic: “Perpetrators deliberately target individuals who will be less likely to report the assault or when they do tell someone, less likely to be believed." And for survivors who have used or been addicted to alcohol or drugs, feelings of shame and self-blame can be intensified.

Meanwhile, as BARCC Executive Director Gina Scaramella shared in a recent WBUR story, some people who have a substance addiction may not have some of the supports (a job, stable housing, strong connections with others) that may lessen the risk. “The isolation piece is a huge vulnerability for sexual violence because the offender will see that as an opportunity."

Coping

Whether or not a survivor used substances before, in dealing with the effects of sexual trauma, some survivors use drugs and alcohol to cope. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PCAR, and the National Institutes of Health have documented—and we have seen in our daily work—survivors of sexual assault may form addictions as they attempt to numb the pain of what they have experienced.  

“Substances are used because most people are never taught how to cope, much less that emotions are okay,” says Sharon Imperato, BARCC’s manager of clinical services. “So if you experience trauma, are overwhelmed, and were taught to stuff down your emotions, how does one cope? How many of us have heard ‘It’s been a really rough day, I need a drink’? People learn from all sorts of places that alcohol or drugs numb—so if a survivor has taken in those messages, substance use and overuse make sense.” When we work with family and friends of survivors, we let them know they can help counter that by sharing other messages that don't emphasize the use of substances as a way of providing support.

Discussing coping skills and offering survivors tools to support their healing is a big piece of counseling at BARCC. While survivors may use substances to try to cope with trauma, substance addiction can negatively impact a survivor’s healing journey. They may lose their jobs or their housing (if they are in a shelter space). It may affect their relationships with loved ones, thereby reducing the social support that would be most helpful for their recovery from the trauma.

Enhancing BARCC services

While BARCC’s practice has always been to refer survivors to specialized services to augment support when there is a significant substance use or addiction concern, we are in the process of enhancing our own services to be more supportive of those survivors. Especially since, more often that not, survivors face long waiting lists at substance addiction providers. Thanks to a generous grant from the Cambridge Licensee Advisory Board (which hosts the Taste of Cambridge), Danielle is currently participating in the Addiction Counselor Education Program (ACEP) at UMass Boston, which will last approximately two semesters.

The comprehensive program is geared at delivering high-quality substance addiction services. Coursework covers a range of topics, including family counseling for substance use, substance addiction and the criminal justice system, and psychopharmacology.

“Our goal in having me complete this program,” Danielle shares, “is to be able to better understand the needs of these survivors and how to be the best support for them, and to better integrate that knowledge into our services.”

This post has been updated to use terms that don't stigmatize substance addiction. Learn more about how word choice can influence people who work with and have struggled with the subject

BARCC offers free and confidential services to survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones. Learn more about our services online or call our 24-hour hotline at 800-841-8371.

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Jessica L. Atcheson
As BARCC’s first staffer solely dedicated to communications, Jessica L. Atcheson leads strategies to advance BARCC’s mission and raise its organizational profile. She develops, implements, and evaluates strategic communications initiatives in a variety of online and offline channels. Prior to joining BARCC, Jessica served as the writer and editor at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights nonprofit. She began her career in nonprofit communications at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, where she worked as associate editor. She has also earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in communication studies from Hamilton College, studied at Oxford University, and served as a survivor advocate through the AmeriCorps Victim Assistance Program. She volunteers at the Network/La Red, which works to end partner abuse and support LGBQ/T survivors.

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