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Women being failed by drug and alcohol treatment services, research finds

Study finds that women are at risk of being targeted by abusers in “chaotic, intimidating or unsafe” drug and alcohol treatment services.

30/10/23

Women being failed by drug and alcohol treatment services, research finds

A new study has uncovered evidence that women are at risk of being targeted by abusers in “chaotic, intimidating or unsafe” drug and alcohol treatment services.

Research published by the Centre for Justice Innovation and Staffordshire University calls for a new specialist approach to treatment for women, which keeps them safe and recognises the strong link between their substance misuse and traumatic experiences like childhood sexual abuse or domestic abuse.

Women who seek treatment for drugs and alcohol face different needs from their male counterparts, including high incidence of trauma and abusive relationships, a greater burden of stigma around substance use and more common childcare responsibilities. Yet the research found that women’s needs were not being met within the treatment system, where they can struggle to achieve recovery in a system where they are outnumbered two to one by men.

The report 'Exploring women's experience of drug and alcohol treatment in the West Midlands' found that some women were forced to attend mixed-gender treatment groups, which made it difficult for some to talk about traumatic experiences that might be linked to their substance use, such as sexual violence.

Mixed gender treatment spaces were also found to be putting the women at risk, with some women describing that they felt vulnerable to “predatory males”. One treatment worker likened mixed groups to “a hunting ground” for men, while others described women being groomed into sex work after being targeted by male service users.

Women also described how the way that services were set up meant that it was difficult to manage treatment alongside childcare responsibilities. Barriers to accessing treatment were seen as particularly pronounced for members of some minority communities, including women of South Asian or Eastern European backgrounds.

The research findings are based on interviews conducted at three community drug treatment services, across three local authorities in the West Midlands, with the help of Stoke-on-Trent based Expert Citizens CIC.

Associate Professor Sarah Page from Staffordshire University’s Centre for Crime, Justice and Security and Fiona McCormack from the University’s Centre for Health and Development (CHAD) contributed to the project.

“For years we have known that people need fluid services between addiction and mental health recovery, and we are no further forward.

“Our report highlights that women are waiting in some cases years before they can access mental health support for underlying trauma. This significantly impedes upon addiction treatment progress.

“We cannot keep making excuses for not addressing co-occurring conditions – it is a waste of public resources to keep people in the cycle of addictions due to treatment services not fully meeting people’s needs. Greater investment in trauma counselling and mental health support for women addicted to drugs and alcohol is needed.”

The research findings come at a pivotal time, as the government has pledged to fund 54,500 new drug treatment places by 2025, as part of its 'From Harm to Hope' drugs strategy.

Centre for Justice Innovation Deputy Director Vicki Morris said the research “paints a clear picture of how current services run the risk of making women unsafe or failing to give them the support they need.”

“We must take advantage of the government’s investment in new treatment places to provide safer, more effective services for women. Our findings show this means not just women-only provision, but also services that recognise the reality of women's lives.

“Services need to find ways to accommodate childcare responsibilities, to be help women deal with the trauma of sexual violence or domestic abuse, to provide access to mental health treatment or safe housing. Women need holistic services that address all of these issues to have the best chance of recovering from their substance use.”

The research has been widely welcomed, including by the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (who co-funded the research, along with the JABBS Foundation), and the Nelson Trust, a charity providing specialist treatment services to women in the South-West.

West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner Simon Foster said: “Overcoming addiction to alcohol or drugs is an immensely difficult challenge – and this is made even harder for women, who face wider issues which can prevent their ability to engage with treatment services. The findings in this research will contribute to the development of more effective and tailored treatment services in our region.

“By understanding the unique challenges faced by women and implementing evidence-based practices, we can take the necessary action to ensure a more inclusive and effective treatment system, that supports the recovery and well-being of all people in our community.”

Nelson Trust Chief Operating Officer Christina Line said: “The study's findings in the West Midlands precisely mirror the experience of women with substance misuse issues who access our women centres across the South-West, and illustrate the need for a whole system, multi-agency approach. The recommendations show that through a gendered response, women can be appropriately supported to successfully complete treatment”.

Read the full report ‘Exploring women's experience or drug and alcohol treatment in the West Midlands’: https://justiceinnovation.org/publications/exploring-womens-experience-drug-and-alcohol-treatment-west-midlands

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