Substance Abuse, Shame, and Asian-Americans


A new study found that higher levels of shame appear to correlate with lower levels of substance abuse among young Asian-American adults with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

The finding is “contrary to trends in the general U.S. population,” where feelings of shame are often associated with higher risks of substance abuse, according to the study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

The research was led by Tanya Saraiya, who was a pre-doctoral fellow from 2015 to 2018 in the Translational Research in Addictions Program at  The City College of New York and Columbia University Medical Center. Contributing to the study were Denise Hien, an adjunct professor at CCNY and The Graduate Center, CUNY, and colleagues at Columbia University.

Shame is a powerful force in Asian culture, shaping behavior in families and promoting conformity to certain values in broader social contexts. The authors said their study is the first to examine how post-traumatic stress symptoms influence substance use among Asian-Americans and “whether shame moderates this association.” In this population, post-traumatic stress is often associated with childhood physical abuse and domestic violence.

The study surveyed 199 individuals, age 18-30, who either immigrated to the U.S. by age 14 or were born here to immigrant parents. Overall, respondents reported more binge drinking and cigarette smoking than hazardous drug use.

The authors said there were “two ways of interpreting” their findings. On the one hand, Asian-Americans with “high levels of shame may have superior behavioral regulation strategies that reduce their need to use substances to cope with traumatic stress symptoms.” Accordingly, “individuals with lower levels of shame may have less inhibition and use substances to cope.”

On the other hand, higher levels of shame and lower levels of substance abuse could be masking “other negative coping strategies” such as “depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.” While more research is needed on the topic, the authors said they hope the study serves as “a first step” in developing “culturally competent substance use treatments for racial and ethnic subgroups.”

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Posttraumatic stress symptoms, shame, and substance use among Asian Americans
Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2019

Work By

Tanya Saraiya (Doctoral candidate, Clinical Psychology) | Profile 1
Denise Hien (Professor, Clinical Psychology) | Profile 1