A Population-Based Study of Help Seeking and Self-Medication Among Trauma-Exposed Individuals

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Epidemiologic studies of trauma highlight the imbalance between prevalence of psychiatric diagnoses and help seeking. We investigated prevalence and correlates of help seeking and self-medication in Norwegian adults with trauma history with a focus on common posttrauma outcomes of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders (alcohol or drug). Participants reporting at least 1 PTSD symptom (n = 307) were asked if they consulted with a doctor/another professional (help seeking) or used drugs/alcohol (self-medication) for trauma-related problems. PTSD, alcohol abuse or dependence (AUD), and drug use or dependence (DUD) were assessed via structured diagnostic interviews. Help seeking and self-medication were endorsed by 37.4% and 10.4% of the sample, respectively. As compared to the full sample, help seeking was endorsed at a greater rate in individuals with PTSD (χ2 = 8.59, p = .005) and at a lower rate in those with AUD (χ2 = 7.34, p < .004). Self-medication was more likely to be endorsed by individuals with PTSD than without PTSD (χ2 = 25.68, p < .001). In regression analyses, PTSD was associated with increased likelihood of self-medication (odds ratio [OR] = 4.56) and help seeking (OR = 2.29), while AUD was associated with decreased likelihood of help-seeking (OR = .29). When self-medication was included as a predictor, PTSD was no longer associated with help seeking, although AUD remained inversely associated. PTSD and AUDs have a nuanced relationship with formal help seeking as well as the use of substances to cope. Trauma-exposed individuals are likely engaging in adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies, the latter of which may be compounding distress.

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