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A research study co-funded by Police and Crime Commissioner Simon Foster has uncovered evidence that women are at risk of being targeted by abusers in “chaotic, intimidating or unsafe” drug and alcohol treatment services.

The 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 relationship, 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 or 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 them 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.

To enable women to have the best chance of achieving recovery, the report recommends providing access to gender-specific support and treatment in ‘safe, appropriate spaces’, suitable for those with children, and providing gender-specific care which can help safely explore drivers of addiction such as trauma and abuse.

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

The research 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.”

Centre for Justice Innovation deputy director Vicki Morris said: “Our 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. 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.”

Associate Professor of Social Justice and Social Learning, Sarah Page, who led Staffordshire University and Expert Citizens CIC’s contribution to the research, highlighted the report’s findings about the links between women’s mental health and substance misuse, saying: “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.”

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