Mental Health

Disasters and Substance Abuse/Dependence

In other places throughout this website you will find information on disaster-related stress, as well as usual and common responses during and following the immediate disaster. The amount and kind of stress and trauma that individuals experience in a disaster will vary from person to person; coping strategies and resiliency will vary as well. Many people having experienced disasters may be vulnerable to abusing substances, resume previous patterns of use and abuse, or resume an addictive behavior because they are overwhelmed by their disaster experience.

Here are some things to keep in mind about substance use, abuse, and dependence as they relate to disaster response:

  • Our relationship with substances (alcohol, tobacco, hallucinogens such as marijuana, stimulants such as caffeine or methamphetamines, or narcotics such as pain medication) can create problems for us in our physical health, relationships, work, and spirituality.
  • We have to remember, though, that our involvement with substances is not just a problem, but an attempt at problem-solving. In other words, people in the midst of or following disasters don’t use or abuse substances because they are evil or bad people, but because at the moment that is their best guess about how to solve problems of meaning-making, stress, and/or survival. Seeing substance struggles this way helps us to remove guilt and morality from them and instead view them as an attempt at problem-solving (not an adaptive or healthy one, but an attempt regardless). Some people, for example, talk about the role of self-medication through substances.
  • Substance abuse is one of the most difficult disorders to assess and treat. Denial, ethnic and cultural views, legal factors, and stigma all contribute to this difficulty.
  • Substance use tends to increase in individuals with an experience of disaster-related trauma as a coping and stress-management strategy. Stress is a major contributor to the initiation and continuation of addiction to alcohol or other drugs, as well as to relapse or a return to drug use after periods of abstinence. Some people are particularly vulnerable to unhealthy use of substances following disasters. Parental loss and child abuse have been associated with increased risk for depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and substance abuse in adulthood.
  • Prevention is always more effective than treatment. Here are some strategies for preventing substance struggles related to disasters:
    • Relying on your support network of friends and family, exercise, or any other healthy behavior to relieve stress can reduce the desire to use alcohol or other drugs during or following disasters.
    • Avoiding triggers, which are things in our environment or in our thinking, behaviors, or feelings that lead to substance abuse, and developing alternatives.
    • Learning techniques that foster coping skills, problem-solving skills, and social support can reduce or eliminate drug use.
    • Some people may need medications for stress-related symptoms or for treatment of depression and anxiety. Physicians should be aware of what medications their patients are taking but should not discourage the use of medical prescriptions to help alleviate stress.
  • Treatment of substance-related struggles is available, even around disasters.
    • If you are experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, please see your physician or health care provider. Health care professionals should be reminded that PTSD frequently co-occurs with depression, anxiety disorders, and alcohol or other substance abuse.
    • If treatment is necessary, it is important that both PTSD and substance abuse are treated.
    • In some cases, medications such as antidepressants have been shown to be helpful in treating patients who suffer from PTSD and substance use disorders.
    • Group treatment is highly effective for substance-related struggles. Consider contacting one of the following groups if this is part of your disaster response.

Adult Children of Alcoholics (AcoA)
P.O. Box 3216
Torrance, CA 90510
(310) 534-1815

Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters
1600 Corporate Landing Pkwy
Virginia Beach, VA 23454
Information Line 800-344-2666
National Referral Line 888-4AL-ANON (M-F, 8AM to 6PM EST)

Alcoholics Anonymous
P.O. Box 459
Grand Central Station
New York, NY 10163
Phone (212) 870-3400

AlaTeen
P.O. Box 459
Grand Central Station
New York, NY 10163
Phone (212) 870-3400
National Referral Line 888-4AL-ANON (M-F, 8AM to 6PM EST)

Center for Substance Abuse Prevention
1 Choke Cherry Road
Room 4-1057
Rockville, MD 20850
Phone: 240-276-2420

Children of Alcoholics Foundation
33 West 60th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10023
Phone (800) 359-2623

Cocaine Anonymous
3740 Overland Avenue, Ste C
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Phone (310) 559-5833
National Referral Line 800-347-8998

Nar-Anon Family Group Headquarters
P.O. Box 2562
Palos Verdes Peninsula, CA 90274
Phone (310) 547-5800

Narcotics Anonymous
PO Box 9999
Van Nuys, CA 91409
Phone (818) 773-9999

Web Links

This is a fact sheet with data, statistics, and a literature review on substance abuse following disasters.

This is a thorough article that explains stress, PTSD, and risk factors for drug and alcohol abuse. It also lists strategies for prevention and intervention.