Doctor says his research finds many people with traumas tend to have substance abuse issues before - not after - an incident
February 16, 2012
When Dr. Gabor Mate began to investigate the medical literature about brain injury and addictions, he was expecting to find addictions could develop after acquiring a brain injury, but he discovered the opposite was true.
The reality is many people who end up with a brain injury have substance abuse issues already, he said.
"Brain injuries happen mostly to young men and they tend to have a history of substance abuse. When you look at the literature you'll find drug use tends to predate the injury," he said.
Mate will be presenting his research findings today at the 22nd Pacific Brain Injury Conference, which continues Friday at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre.
"It means [some] people ending up with traumatic brain injuries tend to have pre-existing addictions. With that understanding we need to look at the childhood risk factors in a preventive sense. There's a lot more we can do to prevent brain injuries by looking at the kids who are at risk because of family circumstances, learning disabilities, behavioural manifestations, emotional dysfunction. This can be intervened in a positive way if we had a preventive system in place," he said.
But Mate said the kids who are most likely to engage in risky behaviour are either not identified early enough or simply being told drinking or drug use is bad, which isn't an effective deterrent.
Mate added there have also been studies showing a high percentage of incarcerated individuals have suffered a brain injury. He pointed out an American expert on trauma once reported "people with childhood trauma, abuse and neglect make up almost the entire justice population in the U.S." An Australian study in 2006 found 82 per cent of prisoners inter-viewed had suffered a traumatic brain injury, he added.
Given the evidence, Mate said the federal government's plan to increase penalties for drug possession as part of its tough-on-crime legislation is the wrong approach to dealing with sub-stance abuse.
"The government's drive is to build more prisons. We're jailing people who were traumatized as children instead of providing rehabilitation," said Mate.
Other US studies have shown incarceration rates of brain injured people vary from 78 per cent in Ohio to 86 per cent in Tacoma, Wash., said John Simpson, of the Fraser Valley Brain Injury Association.
Simpson has been visiting prisons in B.C. since 1991 offering support to inmates and providing in-service training for staff on how to recognize signs of brain injury.
"It's the same here in Canada. The men I've met and interviewed are truly the walking wounded. The vast majority have no visible signs of a brain injury. They look perfectly normal on the outside but only when you begin talking to them you see some have speech difficulties, behavioural or cognitive problems," said Simpson.
Unfortunately, many go unidentified in prison and are seen as having behavioural problems when the root cause is a brain injury and no rehabilitation is offered, he said.
Simpson also agreed more prisons are not the answer.
"You don't need bigger and better prisons. You need bigger and better programs in the community."
The Fraser Valley Brain Injury Association is beginning a new support group for inmates with a brain injury at Mission Institution in the coming weeks. Simpson said it used to have a very active program there but two of the inmates who were key members of the group moved to a minimum security prison. He added both of those men had suffered brain injuries as youths when they were both severely beaten by step-fathers. One also had been involved in a car crash and another suffered a concussion in sports.
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