A space to
We are failing
provide a safe
8 | drinkanddrugsnews | April 2019
rug-related deaths among women are
the highest since records began. In the
decade since 2006 there was a 95 per
cent increase in women dying as a
result of drug misuse, meaning that
697 women lost their lives in 2016.
So what’s going wrong and where are we failing?
And how can we turn this situation around? At a
meeting of the Drugs, Alcohol and Justice Cross-Party
Parliamentary Group, speakers were asked to give their
thoughts on how we can break down barriers to
improve women’s access to treatment.
‘Abuse and violence are underpinning problems,’ said
Jessica Southgate, policy manager at Agenda – the
Alliance for Women and Girls at Risk. In many cases
women’s substance misuse was likely to be intertwined
with violence, criminal justice and mental health issues
and linked to hidden violence and trauma.
‘Drugs are often used as a way to numb the pain of
trauma,’ she said. ‘Women often end up in abusive
relationships and remain in them because of their
Among the population of women prisoners, it was
found that 66 per cent had committed offences to buy
drugs and 48 per cent had offended to support the
drug use of someone else (compared to 22 per cent of
men). As well as abuse and trauma, recurring themes
in the lives of women facing addiction were poor
socio-economic circumstances and strong feelings of
stigma and shame, which could include specific
cultural disapproval among BAME communities.
The many complicated reasons that women turned
to substance misuse meant that getting them
appropriate help could be extremely difficult.
‘Women substance misusers typically have complex
needs and are often overlooked in service provision and
policymaking,’ said Southgate. As well as being
overlooked in mainstream services they could also find
themselves in ‘intimidating spaces’, particularly if they
had experienced violence in their relationships with men.
Her organisation, Agenda, had partnered with AVA
(Against Violence and Abuse) to produce Mapping the
Maze – a project looking at the provision of services for
women across the sectors of substance misuse, mental
health, homelessness, offending and complex needs in
England and Wales. They found that only 19 areas out
of 173 in England and Wales had services that
addressed all of these issues, and that most services
only tackled a single issue. Many services were focused
entirely on pregnant women or those with young
babies, while provision for BAME women was
extremely rare. There was nothing at all specifically for
LGBTQI, those with disabilities, or refugees and asylum
While funding cuts and contract requirements were
found to be serious obstacles to delivering good and
effective services, the Mapping the Maze model was
being suggested as a framework for developing
‘Service design is one of the key pieces from
evidence,’ said Southgate, and this included making
sure staff were trained to look for, recognise and
understand issues relating to multiple disadvantage
and the impact of trauma, particularly in terms of
violence and victimisation.
Talking to women who were affected had revealed
that getting the right help could be extremely difficult
and could take a long time where services did not link
up. Drugs were often used to numb the pain of
trauma, she said, and it was important that all the
appropriate support services were primed to help.
A collaborative approach with women worked best
in understanding the links with substance misuse,
asking their opinions and valuing the ‘lived experience’
of peer support. At the moment, women were being
‘systematically excluded’ as ‘so often policy is made in
silos’, she said, when we needed to ‘put women’s
voices at the heart of it’.