Too many women with drug issues are falling through the gaps
I’ve seen first hand the challenges women face navigating a system that is often not designed for them.
By Siobhan Peters, Director of Services North West, With You
Looking back Tina feels like her drug issues were inevitable. Growing up in a domestically abusive environment she found this experience moulded her. “As I entered adulthood domestic violence was part of every relationship I had because I had no idea how to have a healthy open relationship,” Tina said. Eventually she started using heroin and crack cocaine.
Decades later, now in recovery and working as a volunteer in her drug treatment service, Tina identifies being around other women as important to her journey. The women’s groups she participated in helped her with her confidence and self esteem. Tina said: “having those role models, strong women who believed in me and helped me grow, was so important.”
Women and men’s experience of using drugs and alcohol, accessing support, and engaging with drug treatment is very different. Men make up the vast majority of people who attend drug services and services are often based on their needs. Time and time again, we hear that for many women who come to us seeking support, that services are daunting and intimidating places.
Having worked in this sector for over a decade, I’ve seen first hand the difficulties and challenges women can face navigating a system that is often not designed for them. I know how seemingly simple things like location and times of appointments have more of an impact on accessibility of services for women than men, especially when women have child or family care responsibilities.
Women face additional stigma as primary caregivers, they are disproportionately disadvantaged in the criminal justice system and face barriers entering services which all too often trigger memories of abuse and trauma. I’ve also witnessed the amazing difference it can make to women when services have designed elements with them in mind, have considered their specific needs and have been co-designed by the women who use our services.
Though With You has many services that do an amazing job of accessing and engaging women in their communities, we know there is more we can do.
Earlier this year, we set out to improve our understanding of this issue and have now published our research report ‘A system designed for women?’ with the findings.
We spoke to women from across the UK, from Cornwall to Ayrshire, to better understand their experiences of seeking support for their drug use. We heard how women who have already faced traumatic experiences and set-backs throughout their lives — such as abuse, domestic violence, cultural stigma and family breakdown — are held back from getting support by services and a system that often lacks the capacity and flexibility to cater for their needs.
We found that women face a postcode lottery as to what services will be available to them. Some areas had a whole range of services designed for women, from groups, to women on services, to family sensitive services, other areas of the country had almost nothing but generic services.
And we heard how accessing services is more challenging for women from different and diverse communities. The barriers they face are amplified by services that lack cultural sensitivity and often employ a universal approach to women.
Too many of our communities’ most vulnerable women fall through the gaps, disengaging from services that aren’t designed for them, and not getting the support they need. This has a major impact on women with children and consequently adds to intergenerational cycles of drug use.
Over the coming years, we need to continue to push ourselves, the Government, and the sector to be more ambitious in improving how people access and engage with services. We need to include women with lived experience in the design of our services and value the perspectives they bring to improve services for everyone. This doesn’t just require more targeted investment, but also means that resources already available need to be used more effectively.
Tina had to access multiple treatment services before finally finding the right support that worked for her. In a treatment system designed for women, vulnerable people like Tina won’t spend decades falling through the gaps.
If you’re affected by anything in this report you can get free, confidential advice from our award winning webchat service. Our team is online to help if you need drug or alcohol advice for yourself or to support a friend or relative.
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