A new study found that women who consume drugs and alcohol feel stigmatized and shamed when seeking professional support.
The research is based on the experiences of women accessing community drug and alcohol treatment services in the West Midlands, as well as the experiences of professionals in the field.
Sarah Page, Associate Professor of Social Justice and Social Learning at Staffordshire University, said, „While there are areas of great practice, there are also times when the words and actions of professionals from the drug and alcohol services, health and mental health, and social work and criminal justice fields can make women feel like they have failed.“
„We found that women suffer greatly from the stigma of being a ‚lying addict‘ and therefore constantly need to prove themselves. This can lead to significant social and emotional damage for the individual.“
Interviews and focus groups with women utilizing services were conducted by Staffordshire University in collaboration with Expert Citizens CIC, and a World Café event with professionals was held. The research collaboration included the Center for Justice Innovation, which led the data collection through interviews with professionals. An important feature of the research is that women with personal experience in accessing drug and alcohol services also contributed to the study’s design by assisting in conducting interviews and reflecting on the data.
One woman in the study spoke about not being believed after reporting being sexually abused by a police physician. Another was accused of using drugs after providing a urine sample, which turned out to be a professional error and could have led to the woman losing her child as the inaccurate results were reported to social services.
Evidence was also found of some professionals misrepresenting events in case notes, including legal documents for court hearings, further exacerbating the emotional trauma women experience.
The examination was carried out in response to the government’s drug strategy „From Harm to Hope,“ which promises funding for 54,500 new drug treatment placements by 2025. The results raise concerns that the strategy overlooks the treatment needs of women to some extent.
The findings of the broader study, as reported by the authors, also showed that women are at risk of being targeted by perpetrators in „chaotic, intimidating, or unsafe“ mixed-gender drug and alcohol treatment services.
„We and others in this field have been concerned that the ‚From Harm to Hope‘ strategy does not fully consider the specific treatment needs of women and does not provide differentiated guidelines for working with women.“
Fiona McCormack, Center for Health and Development, Staffordshire University
„Our findings demonstrate that stigmatization negatively impacts the identification of treatment needs and access to appropriate support. The social damage to women with substance use disorders could be greatly reduced through timely, authentic, honest, gender-specific, and trauma-informed practices.“
The authors now advocate for women-only services to ensure that addicted women feel safe and credible. Based on the views of the women in this study, another recommendation is for experienced experts to work in the roles of recovery mentors to provide more empathy, act as role models, and contribute to service design.
Further recommendations include mandatory training with regular updates for professionals in all related services regarding trauma, gender discrimination and harassment, ethical professional practice, impartiality, and response to user complaints.
Associate Professor Sarah Page added, „It is important to recognize that women in recovery work really hard to prove themselves.“
„Several public health authorities have already committed to providing a women-only service, which is a great achievement, and we hope that even more throughout the UK will do the same. Staffordshire Police has also invited us to conduct training to ensure that custody suites in Staffordshire are guaranteed to change in their approach to working with women and drug users in a broader sense of trauma.““
Page, S., et al. (2024). Stigmatization of Women, Addiction, Mental Health, Dishonesty, and Criminality: Solutions to Reduce Social Damages from Stigmatization. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. doi.org/10.3390/ijerph21010063.