The Link Between Childhood Trauma, Alcohol Use, and Incarceration

Psychopathy is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, as a psychiatric condition. However, people who exhibit symptoms of psychopathy often have significant mental health challenges. Individuals with psychopathic personalities are considered dishonest, unremorseful, fake, egotistical, and often violent. A large percentage of incarcerated adults are assumed to exhibit these same symptoms. Studies on this segment of the population have focused on identifying factors that could predict psychopathy, including childhood traumas, comorbid psychological conditions, and drug and alcohol use. Research has shown that children who have difficulty with emotional regulation may be at increased risk for violent or antisocial behavior in adulthood.

To further examine the relationship between childhood events, substance misuse, and psychopathy, Eva R. Kimonis of the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida recently conducted a study on 373 incarcerated male teens ranging in age from 14 to 17 years old. The sample was primarily ethnically diverse, which is a representation of actual incarcerated youth. The teens had been convicted of violent crimes, including assault, rape, and murder. Kimonis assessed the levels of alcohol and drug use and the childhood histories of first-time offenders and compared them to secondary offenders and found that secondary offenders had significantly higher rates of comorbidity.

Specifically, Kimonis discovered that secondary offenders had higher levels of alcohol use in the 6 months before their conviction than first-time offenders. Additionally, secondary offenders reported more traumatic events, such as childhood neglect, abuse, or maltreatment, than those incarcerated for the first time. These levels were the highest in those with the most extreme psychopathic symptoms. For these individuals, alcohol use was a common thread. Kimonis believes that teens who experience difficulties in early childhood may turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the stress and pain of the traumas. This is especially evident in disadvantaged and minority youth. These results support this theory, as those with the highest levels of psychopathy were also the teens who had histories of childhood maltreatment and alcohol misuse. Kimonis added, “Interventions may focus on identifying more positive strategies for coping with negative emotional states that stem from mental health problems related to trauma history.”

Kimonis, E. R., Tatar, J. R., II, Cauffman, E. (2012). Substance-related disorders among juvenile offenders: What role do psychopathic traits play? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028047

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Rene


    June 21st, 2012 at 11:46 PM

    Many times it’s surprising how just being alert of the activities of a perpetrator could have prevented a crime..these things are so telling..we need more people and facilities with intervention programs for those who may be on a path to destruction.

  • James


    June 22nd, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    The worst thing about so much of this is that most of it are things that could be avoided. If the child grew up in a loving home this would not happen. If they are given the tools for handling life pressure other than drugs and alcohol this would not happen. If our prison system truly was about rehabilitation and redemption instead of strictly punishment and teaching them exactly the things to do that will bring them right back to the aetting then this would not happen. For the most part it is this cycle of negative behaviors which all feed off of one another that leads us to this point with so many of our youth today.

  • faulkner


    June 22nd, 2012 at 11:24 AM

    It’s as if many of the 1st time offenders know that this is a path that they will be down again so they think little of adding even more negative behaviors and choices into their lives.
    What if there was something though that could stop that perpetual journey toward abuse and eventual incarceration? I wish that there were some community resources and programs which could get actively involved and help to stem not only the recidivism rates of these 1st time offenders but also squash the chances that they will be back again, and then have even bigger problems to tackle with the abusive behaviors that they will have almost certainly engaged in by that point too.
    However there are very few resources available to reach out to these children in need so much of the time it feels like we are helpless as we watch them take this path of destructive behavior.

  • Rachel


    June 22nd, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    In response, I feel the urge to clarify that the terms “psychopathy” and “psychopathic” have been so misused by the media that the committee behind the DSM-IV decided to change the name to anti-social personality disorder.

    Being coined psychopathic in our society is essentially counter-productive to psychology’s mission to help and heal patients, and in these days typically refers to people that are incarcerated – when chances are that there are millions more exhibiting similar symptoms that have not been incarcerated.

    I applaud the author’s purpose to raise awareness of the link between antisocial personality disorder, substance abuse and childhood trauma – it helps to negate the erroneous and damaging vilification of those with this diagnosis – but do want to point out the diagnosis didn’t disappear. It’s simply recognized by another name.

    I would assume that the substance abuse among those with this diagnosis do so under the need to self-medicate (most adult substance abusers are self-medicating for some emotional or psychological imbalance), which further shows that our society is doing an exceptionally poor job of helping those in suffering and despair.

  • Rachel


    June 22nd, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    That’s exactly it. These kids get out, and nothing has changed in their lives. In fact, things are usually worse. If they were beaten by their parents before, they’re probably beat more. Teachers in school likely treat them as second-class citizens. So the things that caused the disturbance continue, and they self-medicate with drugs and then are likely to make another poor decision since their brains are further muddled.

    The incarceration system in our country is a joke. The supposed intent of jail time for most non-violent crimes, especially for youth, is rehabilitation. Yet many jails, including juvenile halls are cesspools of poor care, poor nutrition and little therapy. It’s sickening, stupid and only serves to bring money into an industry that has become increasingly privatized in the past two decades or so.

  • gregg


    June 23rd, 2012 at 6:15 AM

    Is the intent to show that psychotic people are created by this system? Or is just that more people who display these tendencies are the evry same ones who end up in the prison system without any help for change or treatment?

  • Jayden


    June 24th, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    Obviously there is a connection between the abuse that one suffers through as a child and the likelihood that he or she will then face drug and alcohol abuse issues as well as may be faced with incarceration as a result of the bad habits and behavioral tendencies that are formed as a result.
    So my question becomes this: where is the intervention from a young age? Where are the programs that may could help young people avoid these life choices and help them get on a healthier life path instead of waiting for the behaviors to occur?
    Because ultimately that’s the only way turning these lives around will be a success. We have to stop thinking more about what we are going to do to treat those things when they emerge, and rather start viewing it more as how are we going to help avoid these issues from the beginning?

  • amy


    June 25th, 2012 at 4:26 AM

    Are the prisons offering any kind of education that they think could have a positive effect on these first time inmates that would show them ways to not end up there again?

  • Johnathan


    June 26th, 2012 at 4:34 AM

    The whole thought of kids being in prson for anything just stinks anyway.

    There has to be a better way for them to be punished for their crimes but not in a setting that will continue to set them up for future criminal behavior.

  • Rachel


    June 26th, 2012 at 2:02 PM

    No, antisocial personality disorder isn’t created by our prison system at all. But it may be exacerbated by it. Essentially, since antisocial personality disorder is an extreme absence of emotional connection with people, it would make sense that the prison system would be a place where having that disconnect is a mechanism for survival.

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