It’s Time to See People Who Use Drugs and Alcohol as Trauma Survivors

I really dislike the word addict to describe someone. I believe that people are more than just their addiction! Yes, many of my patients are trauma survivors who use (or have used) drugs and alcohol (or food or self-harming behavior) to feel less badly and they are/have been addicted to their drug of choice, but they are people in pain. More than just the word addict is needed to describe them.

The truth is, if someone is using drugs or alcohol, it’s likely the best coping mechanism they’ve got right now. For therapists, this is the power of the trauma-informed approach. We can begin to treat the trauma when we realize people are using as a coping mechanism, not because it’s fun or enjoyable.

Let’s face it. The general public sees addicts as bad people. But when addiction touches a loved one’s life—it suddenly becomes clear that addiction isn’t selective between good people and bad people. It impacts everyone. While tragically addiction is becoming more common, it’s also (thankfully!) becoming less stigmatized.

As a therapist treating those struggling with addictions and self-harm, I encourage a much needed shift in our country’s attitudes towards addiction behavior. A recent statement by the Surgeon General is calling for compassion.

This Report is a call to all Americans to change the way we address substance misuse and substance use disorders in our society. Past approaches to these issues have been rooted in misconceptions and prejudice and have resulted in a lack of preventive care; diagnoses that are made too late or never; and poor access to treatment and recovery support services, which exacerbated health disparities and deprived countless individuals, families, and communities of healthy outcomes and quality of life. Now is the time to acknowledge that these disorders must be addressed with compassion and as preventable and treatable medical conditions.”

This is a welcome sign of change, and is a great demonstration of how health professionals can fight stigma and promote mental health. I applaud it and say, “It’s about time.”

In light of this powerful statement, I want to help further the cause of compassion with a few tips and resources:

  • You can’t treat addiction without treating trauma. There is always a reason someone is using drugs or alcohol and a pattern of addiction has taken hold. Often times, this reason can be a perceived trauma in the person’s life. While trauma is in the eye of the perceiver and can be different for everyone—it’s crucial that we treat addiction through a trauma-informed lens.
  • Understanding addiction is key to responding effectively. By better understanding the nature and formation of addiction, we can help people with addiction and their loved ones find new, positive ways to support the journey to recovery. Understanding addiction.
  • Opiate addiction is widespread—and compassion is essential. Right now, there is a heroin/opiate epidemic going on. It’s spanning all communities, all ages, all races, all genders, and all socioeconomic statuses! Like the Surgeon General stated, compassion is essential in treating addiction.
  • For parents with adolescents who may be using… If you believe your child is using drugs or alcohol, talking with them is very important. No matter how terrified or anxious you feel, your love and concern can provide great strength for your child’s recovery. Discover how to talk with your adolescent about their drug or alcohol use and learn about substance abuse and the teenage mind.
  • If you are a family member of someone using addiction… I understand how hard it is to watch a family member who is using addiction. I understand how powerless you feel as you watch your loved one struggle in the depth of their addiction. What I’m about to tell you is really important: YOU deserve care too.

As a trauma-informed therapist who treats addiction, I know that addiction and recovery don’t happen overnight. But I also know that there is help and that it works. In almost 20 years of practice, I have seen so many people recover, get healthy and no longer have the need to use the addiction. There is hope!. Compassion, not condemnation, is the key to getting people with addiction into effective treatment.


It’s Time to See People Who Use Drugs and Alcohol as Trauma Survivors

Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT

Robyn E. Brickel MA, LMFT, is the founder and director of Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she established in 1999. Her insights for parent and teens appear in interviews in The Washington Post, and Washington Parent magazine, and she presents educational workshops for clinicians on the treatment of adolescent substance abuse and trauma. Her counseling and psychoeducational services provide treatment for recovery from trauma and/or abuse, including dissociation; addictions; adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) issues; body image issues and eating disorders; self-harming behaviors, including emotional intensity and instability; anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; challenged family systems; chronic illness; co-dependency; dysfunctional relationships; life transitions; loss and bereavement; relationship distress; self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; and stress reduction. She is a trained trauma and addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.


APA Reference
Brickel, R. (2017). It’s Time to See People Who Use Drugs and Alcohol as Trauma Survivors. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Mar 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 Mar 2017
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