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Drug Addiction-Domestic Violence Connection Strong

In his long career in law enforcement, Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch learned to expect a connection between alcohol and domestic violence calls.

These days, the link between abuse and addiction is still there, but the primary substance has changed.

Rausch said police now find opioid use tied to more domestic violence calls — as it is to theft, other types of violence and “just about every call” to police.

“Opioid addiction has taken over in terms in everything that we do,” Rausch said. “This is an addiction issue unlike anything we have seen in our community.”

Opioid-violence link

On Wednesday evening, Rausch sat on a panel on “Opioid Abuse and Its Relationship with Domestic Violence,” sponsored by the Junior League of Knoxville and moderated by WATE-TV anchor Kristin Farley.

About 40 people attended the forum at the East Tennessee History Center with Rausch and other panelists including Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department; Karen Pershing, executive director of Metro Drug Coalition; and Jerry Vagnier, president and CEO of Helen Ross McNabb Center.

“We’re seeing that because of this disease, because of this addiction issue, opioids are causing irrational behavior and violence,” Rausch said. “A person who has become dependent on these drugs … to function is looking for any way they can get them.” Those who “get in the way” are endangered, he said.

Trauma and drugs

People who are addicted also are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by others, said Vagnier, who added McNabb recently expanded its 24-hour abuse crisis shelter so children can stay with parents.

“We always think about physical abuse, but there’s a lot of unequal power in (abusive) relationships,” he said. “It’s psychological in nature … you’re made to feel less than your partner. Over time, your power, your privilege, your opportunities get less and less.”

But even those who begin using drugs on their own may have a link to domestic violence, he said; more than half of the women McNabb Center treats for addiction issues have a history of some kind of trauma. Studies suggest victims of violence are more susceptible to substance abuse, in part as a coping mechanism.

And children who witness domestic violence, abuse or mental illness and substance abuse growing up — even if they’re not direct victims of the abuser — carry a higher risk of substance abuse and other risky behaviors later in their own lives, along with mental health issues and chronic illnesses such as heart disease, according to a broad government-sanctioned study on adverse childhood experiences.

“That sets their course of being vulnerable,” Vagnier said. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to be a victim of domestic violence; it doesn’t mean they’re going to be addicted. … But they have to overcome that” added vulnerability.

Signs of abuse

Buchanan and Pershing pointed out that abuse victims and addicts can share some of the same signs: isolating themselves, a noticeable change in hygiene, erratic behaviors and defensiveness. All the panelists said it’s important to not be afraid to broach the subject, and not drop it.

“We need to pursue the people we love, and we need to stay the course,” said Vagnier, who advised thinking of the drug as a person: “They begin to rationalize their own behavior to keep their relationship with this drug.”

As for getting help with addiction, that can be challenging, especially for the uninsured, but “there is hope,” he said. “People become very creative when someone calls and says, ‘I need help.’ We may not have exactly what they need right then, but we can give them a place to start.”

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