Study finds association of childhood abuse, neglect with misuse of prescription opioids in early adulthood

March 4, 2018

A new study by investigators at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health examines the association of childhood abuse and neglect with prescription opioid misuse in early adulthood and the role of pain and depressive symptoms in adolescence in this association.

Anna Austin

Anna Austin

Dr. Meaghan Shanahan

Dr. Meaghan Shanahan

Published in the February issue of Children and Youth Services Review, the study was co-authored by Anna Austin, MPH, doctoral student in maternal and child health at the Gillings School and graduate research assistant at the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC), and Meghan Shanahan, PhD, research assistant professor of maternal and child health and IPRC research scientist.

Austin and Shanahan used data from more than 14,000 participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) in 1994-1995 and in 2002.

About 20 percent of the respondents reported misusing a prescription opioid in early adulthood. Childhood abuse and neglect were associated directly with an increase in the probability that a prescription opioid would be misused in early adulthood, and experiences of pain in adolescence mediated this association.

The researchers posit that pain may represent a complex stress-related response to early trauma that may contribute to misuse of prescription opioids as a coping mechanism.

“This research points to the importance of considering the role of both physical and psychological trauma, including trauma experienced during early childhood, in understanding factors that contribute to prescription opioid misuse – and in developing effective solutions to address the opioid crisis in the U.S.,” said Austin. “In addition, the results highlight the importance of primary prevention of childhood abuse and neglect as a potential long-term strategy for improving overall population-level health.”


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or

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