Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Intergenerational Substance Use Among Black Women With Trauma

Understanding the impact of generational substance use on minoritized women.

Source: Southworks/Shutterstock

Is addiction just a personal failure, or are there deeper, systemic issues at play? For millions of women in the United States, particularly those from minoritized backgrounds, substance use disorders (SUDs) are not just a battle against addiction but also against the cycles of poverty, trauma, and discrimination that perpetuate it.

Recent statistics are alarming: Approximately 5.6% of women in the US, totaling 7.2 million, are grappling with SUDs. What's even more concerning is that 15.4% of women—about 19.5 million—admit to using illicit substances in the past year alone. These figures from SAMHSA and NIDA reveal a distressing trend, with the rate of increase in drug overdose deaths among women surpassing that of men. However, these numbers don’t fully capture the layered challenges faced by minoritized women, for whom the intersection of trauma, societal oppression, and SUDs form a daunting gauntlet.

Why are substance use issues so prevalent among minoritized women? The answer lies partly in the profound impact of trauma and victimization. Studies consistently show that over 85% of women in SUD treatment report experiencing significant trauma in their lives. This trauma often stems from and is exacerbated by systemic inequities—poor access to healthcare, unstable housing, and limited employment opportunities—that make recovery a steep uphill battle.

Moreover, for Black and Indigenous women, the dual burdens of racial discrimination and economic disadvantage intertwine with higher levels of substance use and worse health outcomes. These women are disproportionately affected by mental health issues and have higher risks of encountering violence and discrimination, which can lead to increased SUD prevalence and fewer opportunities for adequate treatment.

How does the legacy of addiction passed down through generations affect minoritized women today? Parental substance use not only increases the risk of economic hardship but also disrupts essential family dynamics, perpetuating a cycle of trauma and substance use across generations.

This cycle is particularly vicious in communities where social determinants of health—like access to education, quality housing, and equitable healthcare—are compromised. Intergenerational trauma, fueled by ongoing discrimination and structural inequalities, continues to affect the mental and physical health of subsequent generations, creating a recurring pattern of substance misuse and dependency.

Research indicates that children of parents with SUDs are significantly more likely to develop similar issues, highlighting the urgent need for targeted interventions that address both the substance use and the underlying social and emotional challenges. For instance, studies like those by Barbosa-Leiker et al. (2021) emphasize the necessity of trauma-informed care in treatment programs, particularly for women involved in the criminal justice system, whose rates of SUDs are notably higher.

Strategies for Breaking the Cycle

Tailored interventions that recognize the unique challenges faced by minoritized women are essential to break the cycle of intergenerational substance use disorders. This includes implementing community-based programs that provide accessible mental health services and support for families dealing with SUDs.

Ensuring that minoritized women have equal access to resources that can significantly alleviate the impact of SUDs is one of the most critical interventions. Programs designed to improve economic stability, provide stable housing, and enhance educational opportunities can also have a profound effect on reducing the prevalence of intergenerational substance use.

Lastly, fostering a societal shift toward more inclusive and understanding approaches to SUDs will help de-stigmatize the issue. By promoting open discussions and raising awareness about the deep-seated issues that contribute to substance use, communities can better support those in need of help.

By understanding and addressing the intergenerational and systemic factors that contribute to SUDs, we can pave the way for a future in which every woman has the opportunity to overcome the challenges of substance use and lead a healthy, fulfilling life.


Barbosa-Leiker C, Smith CL, Crespi EJ, Brooks O, Burduli E, Ranjo S, Carty CL, Hebert LE, Waters SF, Gartstein MA. Stressors, coping, and resources needed during the COVID-19 pandemic in a sample of perinatal women. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 2021;21(1):171. doi: 10.1186/s12884-021-03665-0.

More from Carolyn C. Ross M.D., M.P.H.
More from Psychology Today