Victims of rape or sexual assault may turn to alcohol or other substances in an attempt to relieve their emotional suffering. In the U.S., victims of sexual assault report higher levels of psychological distress and the consumption of alcohol than non-victims, in part, to self-medicate. Some victims use substances to cope with the reality of what happened to them or to cope with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a common reaction to an extreme situation like sexual assault. However, it is not a healthy way to deal with the trauma of sexual assault and can cause additional problems, such as addiction or dependence, that hinder the healing process.

Survivors of sexual assault or sexual abuse in childhood may abuse drugs to help them “numb out” and push away the painful memories of sexual violence. Victims may also turn to drugs instead of true recovery resources, such as counseling; they may not think that friends or family will understand them, they may not know where to access recovery resources, or they may be embarrassed to talk about what happened.

Friends and family of sexual assault victims may be among the first to recognize the signs of substance abuse. Early recognition increases chances for successful treatment.

Warning signs include:

  • Giving up past activities or hobbies
  • Spending time with new friends who may be a negative influence
  • Declining grades or performance at work
  • Aggressiveness, irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disappearing money or valuables from family and friends
  • Lying
  • Depression or hopelessness
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Drinking and driving or getting in trouble with the law
  • Suspension from school or work

When compared to non-victims, rape survivors are 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana, 6 times more likely to use cocaine, and 10 times more likely to use other major drugs.

Following are common substances that some victims use subsequent to sexual assault:

  • Alcohol
    • Alcohol depresses the brain, lessens inhibitions, slurs speech, decreases muscle control and coordination, and may lead to alcoholism.
    • For most adults, moderate alcohol use (which causes few, if any, problems) consists of up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people. A strong need or urge to drink past this, or an inability to stop drinking once drinking has begun may be the beginning signs of alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence.
    • Alcohol is the most common cause of liver failure in the U.S. The drug can cause heart enlargement and cancer of the esophagus, pancreas, and stomach.
    • Withdrawal symptoms may include anxiety, irregular heartbeat, tremor, seizures, and hallucinations. When combined with malnutrition, it can lead to a life threatening condition called delirium tremens (DTs), literally shaking or trembling.
  • Tobacco
    • The primary substance in tobacco cigarettes is nicotine, but smoke contains thousands of other chemicals that are also damaging.
    • Smoking is responsible for nearly a half million deaths each year. Other hazards include heart disease, lung cancer and emphysema, peptic ulcer disease and stroke.
    • Withdrawal symptoms may include anxiety, hunger, sleep disturbances and depression.
  • Marijuana
    • Marijuana (also known as “grass,” “pot,” “weed,” or “herb”) produces an active ingredient called THC, which provides a high level of intoxication. The drug is typically smoked, but it can also be eaten.
    • Common effects of marijuana use include impaired coordination and memory.
    • Its smoke irritates the lungs of users and contains more cancer-causing chemicals than tobacco smoke.
  • Cocaine
    • Derived from the coca plant of South America, cocaine can be smoked, injected, snorted or swallowed; the intensity and duration of the drug’s effects depend on which method is used.
    • Cocaine (also known as “crack,” “coke,” “snow,” or “rock”) is said to bring on paranoia, constriction of blood vessels leading to heart damage or stroke, irregular heartbeat, kidney and lung failure, and death.
    • Withdrawal symptoms may include depression and reduced energy.
  • Heroin
    • Effects of heroin intoxication may include drowsiness and slowed breathing. Overdose may result in death from decreased breathing. Because heroin is usually injected, often with dirty needles, use of the drug can trigger other health complications including destruction of heart valves, HIV/AIDS, infections, tetanus, and botulism.
    • Withdrawal symptoms can be intense and can include vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, confusion, aches and sweating.
  • Methamphetamines
    • Methamphetamine (also known as “meth,” “crank,” “ice,” “speed,” or “crystal”) is a powerful stimulant that may decrease appetite. It can be snorted, injected, smoked or eaten.
    • Much like cocaine, “meth” may cause heart attacks, dangerously high blood pressure and strokes.
    • Withdrawal symptoms include depression, abdominal cramps, and increased appetite. Other long-term effects include paranoia, hallucinations, weight loss, destruction of teeth and heart damage.

Finding Treatment

Most substance abusers believe they can stop using drugs on their own, but many who try do not succeed. Research shows that long-term drug use alters brain function and strengthens compulsions to use drugs. This craving continues even after the drug use stops. Because of these ongoing cravings, the most important component of treatment is preventing relapse.

It may be helpful for a survivor to share their experiences and concerns with a qualified service provider (i.e. counselor or psychologist). A general physician can suggest community resources as well as prescribe medications to control cravings and withdrawal symptoms while the user seeks further help.

If you feel you are suffering from substance abuse:

  • Reach out to a trusted friend or family member and ask for help.
  • Contact the free Substance Abuse Treatment Referral Helpline.
    • 1.800.662.HELP(4357)
  • Contact your doctor.
    • Contact your doctor immediately if you are suffering from a cough that won’t go away, fever, continuing feelings of depression, jaundice, mild tremors, leg swelling or increased abdominal girth.
  • Call 911 or go to a hospital’s emergency department immediately if you are suffering from severe abdominal pain, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, severe tremors, numbness, or suicidal thoughts.

If you know or suspect someone you love is suffering from substance abuse:

  • Contact the free Substance Abuse Treatment Referral Helpline for support and advice on helping your loved one.
    • 1.800.662.HELP (4357)
  • Do not “cover up” for your loved one. It is important that he or she get the help that they deserve.
  • Choose a time to speak with your loved one when he or she is sober, when both of you are fairly calm, and when you have a chance to talk in private. It is also best to speak to your loved one shortly after a substance-related problem has occurred (like a serious family argument or accident).
  • Gather information in advance about treatment options in your community. If the person is willing to get help, call right away for an appointment, and offer to go with him or her for support.

Additional Resources:

Alcoholics Anonymous

United States Department of Health and Human Services

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator

Toll-Free Substance Abuse Treatment Referral Helpline

1.800.662.HELP (1-800-662-4357)

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents: A Research Based Guide

The Center for Health Communication of the Harvard School of Public Health offers A Guide for Teens: Does Your Friend Have An Alcohol or Other Drug Problem?



  1. Interpersonal Violence and Alcohol Policy Briefing. World Health Organization.…
  2. Mental Health: Substance Abuse. 2009.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. National Institutes of Health. 2007.
  4. National Mental Health Information Center: Center for Mental Health Services. United States Department of Health and Human Services – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2009.

This product was supported by grant number 2009-D1-BX-KO23 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Sections on this page have been adapted from: Rainn



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