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How ACEs can Lead to Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders

adverse childhood experience

Some Kids are Dealt a Bad Hand—and the ACEs can Lead to Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders

Do you like to play cards? No matter what your favorite might be—poker, cribbage, bridge, spades, go fish, kings in the corner, solitaire, or what have you—it is generally the case that the four aces are an important part of the game. Often the aces are some of the most desirable cards in the entire deck. 

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But a different kind of ACE—an abbreviation for adverse childhood experience—is, as the name suggests, never positive. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that ACEs frequently lead to substance use and mental health disorders.

What are adverse childhood experiences? Let’s take a look.

Childhood Is Always Challenging—But Sometimes Those Challenges are Extreme

Of course, no childhood is perfect. Most every child faces a whole range of challenges as they grow up. But some challenges are far worse than others. Those sorts of difficulties and circumstances fall into the category of adverse childhood experiences.

The list of identified adverse childhood experiences includes:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Parental mental illness
  • Parental substance use
  • Parental incarceration
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Parental deportation
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Witnessing the abuse of a sibling
  • Witnessing violence outside the home
  • Experiencing racism
  • Being an immigrant
  • Experiencing homelessness
  • Repeatedly moving
  • Living in a war zone or other unsafe environment
  • Being placed in foster care
  • Being bullied
  • Attending a school with a zero tolerance disciplinary policy
  • Interaction with the criminal justice system

That is quite a list, right? And while we might wish it were not so, the fact of the matter is that lots and lots of children have those kinds of experiences as they grow up. And those who do are susceptible to problems as adults.

ACEs Wild: Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders

As we have noted, the evidence strongly suggests that those who experience adverse childhood experiences are then more likely to develop substance use disorders, mental health disorders, or both.

If you look over that long list again, it is fairly easy to see why that might be the case. ACEs can lead to trauma-based mental health disorders as well as to depression and/or anxiety. And those who are struggling with their past and the pain it continues to cause them in the present might well turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to manage their difficult emotions and the symptoms of mental health challenges. A person who is dealing with both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder is likely to find it extremely difficult to effectively address either one on their own.

Treatment is Your Ace in the Hole

When you have been struggling to get through tough experiences since you were a kid, you might have reached the conclusion that you can just fend for yourself—no matter what the situation.

But when it comes to substance use and mental health disorders, your best course of action is to get help. Reclaiming your sobriety and making progress toward better mental health are essential ways to improve your life, but to do that, you have to address the problems of the past and how they are affecting you today.

We want to make a related point, too. If you are the parent or guardian of a child who has experienced one or more of the ACEs we listed earlier, it is a good idea to seek out mental health treatment for that young person. Getting help sooner rather than later can lead to much better outcomes over time.

We are Always Ready to Help

At Bel Aire Recovery Center in Kansas, we know that adverse childhood experiences can result in any number of difficulties when you are all grown up. If you are struggling with drugs or alcohol, with a mental health disorder, or with both, we have the experience, expertise, and empathy necessary to help you make real and lasting changes.

We know it is not always easy to take that first step toward getting sober or improving your mental health. But we also know that those who take that step and get the help they need have an opportunity to lessen the lasting impacts of adverse childhood experiences. Leaving the past in the past is not always easy, but it is essential if you are going to live fully in the present and seize the opportunities of your future. We are ready to help you get started.