Conference Coverage

In addiction, abusive partners can wreak havoc

Gender-based violence could be driver of opioid epidemic, expert suggests



– Many factors drive addiction. But clinicians often fail to address the important role played by abusive intimate partners, a psychiatrist told colleagues at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.

An incident of domestic viokence is shown, with a man threatening his partner. Photodisc/Thinkstock

Violence is not the only source of harm, said Carole Warshaw, MD, as abusers also turn to sabotage, gaslighting, and manipulation – especially when substance users seek help.

“Abusive partners deliberately engage in behaviors designed to undermine their partner’s sanity or sobriety,” said Dr. Warshaw, director of the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health in Chicago, in a presentation at the meeting. “We’ve talked a lot about drivers of the opioid epidemic, including pharmaceutical industry greed and disorders of despair. But nobody’s been really talking about gender-based violence as a potential driver of the opioid epidemic, including intimate-partner violence, trafficking, and commercial sex exploitation.”

Dr. Warshaw highlighted the findings of a 2014 study that examined the survey responses of 2,546 adult women (54% white, 19% black, 19% Hispanic) who called the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The study, led by Dr. Warshaw, only included women who had experienced domestic violence and were not in immediate crisis.

The women answered questions about abusive partners, and their responses were often emotional, Dr. Warshaw said. “People would say: ‘No one asked me this before,’ and they’d be in tears. It was just very moving for people to start thinking about this.”

Gaslighting, sabotage, and accusations of mental illness were common. More than 85% of respondents said their current or ex-partner had called them “crazy,” and 74% agreed that “your partner or ex-partner has ... deliberately done things to make you feel like you are going crazy or losing your mind.”

Strategies of abusive partners include sabotaging and discrediting their partners’ attempts at recovery, Dr. Warshaw said. Half of callers agreed that a partner or ex-partner “tried to prevent or discourage you from getting ... help or taking medication you were prescribed for your feelings.”

About 92% of callers who said they’d tried to get help in recent years “reported that their partner or ex-partner had threatened to report their alcohol or other drug use to authorities to keep them from getting something they wanted or needed,” the study found.

All of the abuse can create a kind of addiction feedback loop, she said. “Research has consistently documented that abuse by an intimate partner increases a person’s risk for developing a range of health and mental health conditions – including depression, PTSD, anxiety – that are risk factors for opioid and substance use.”

One resource that clinicians can use to protect patients from abusive and manipulative partners is her center’s toolkit on “Coercion Related to Mental Health and Substance Use in the Context of Intimate Partner Violence.”

The toolkit, she said, provides insight into how to integrate questions about abusive partners into your practice and how to partner with domestic violence programs.

Dr. Warshaw reported no relevant disclosures.

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