Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, makes the case in this exclusive comment piece for Mental Health Today.
Women and their experiences are missing from our understanding and response to alcohol addiction. A failure to consider the different and specific experiences of women is leading to many being left to cope alone, unheard and unsupported. Sometimes with devastating consequences.
The number of women dying from alcohol related deaths is at an all-time high.
I want to share Thea’s story. Thea was abused as a child, the trauma that she experienced led to mental health problems and she started drinking to cope. Thea told Agenda: “I had a lot of nightmares and flashbacks, and experienced huge anxiety and panic. I self-harmed and drank heavily in an attempt to calm the horrific feelings and distract from the memories.”
Sadly Thea is not alone. For too many women, experiences of violence and abuse underpin problems they face. Many women use substances like alcohol as a way to cope with trauma.
Agenda’s research shows that one in 20 women have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both a child and an adult. That is 1.2 million women in England alone. Almost a third of those women have an alcohol problem – that’s more than twice the rate than among women who have little or no experience of violence and abuse.
This can lead to other problems, including homelessness, contact with criminal justice system or the removal of children from their care, all intensifying and deepening the trauma they’ve experienced. Yet, this link between gender, trauma and addiction is rarely considered in service provision for women.
It’s a failure with tragic consequences. In 2017, the number of women dying from alcohol related deaths reached the highest rate since records began.
Addiction treatment services are often designed for and dominated by men, meaning many women – particularly those who have experienced violence and abuse – don’t feel safe when they use them.
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And these services often have little understanding of the realities of women’s lives. Few have been designed to meet women’s needs, for example through providing childcare so that women can keep their children with them or responding to the gender-based violence they’ve faced.
Evidence shows that there are just too few specialist services. Half of all local authority areas in England have no support specifically for women experiencing substance use problems.It’s vital that women’s needs are taken into account in alcohol treatment services. All local areas must have enough services for women facing overlapping problems like poor mental health, trauma and addiction.
Women are being failed
We need to see a far better gender-informed approach to supporting women who struggle with addiction. This must start with women’s needs being recognised in all local and national drug and alcohol policy and strategies. This needs to be supported by funding for and commissioning of specialist gender- and trauma-informed support, including services that are able to meet the needs of women facing multiple problems, and those which allow women to maintain contact with their children.
Without addressing the issues underpinning women’s addictions and providing services that offer appropriate support, we risk continuing to fail women like Thea, preventing them from getting the support they need to move on with their lives, manage their mental health and recover from trauma.
Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, works to ensure that women and girls facing abuse, poverty, poor mental health, addiction and homelessness get the support and protection they need. We campaign for systems and services to be transformed; to raise awareness across sectors; and to promote public and political understanding of the lives of women and girls facing multiple disadvantage. See www.weareagenda.org