Women and alcohol: why we need a trauma-informed response

Agenda | September 2019 | 8 minutes

Policy proposal: Ensure local areas have adequate service provision for those with complex needs.

The Alcohol Charter, produced jointly by the Drugs, Alcohol & Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm, sets out effective and workable policies to reduce the damage to society caused by alcohol misuse. The proposal above is one of 16 evidence-based policy proposals laid out in the Charter.

Agenda is one of more than 30 organisations that endorse the Alcohol Charter. Here, they outline their reasons for supporting this proposal.

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For too many women, lifetime experiences of violence and abuse underpin problems they face as adults. Many women use substances like alcohol as a way to cope with current or past trauma. These coping mechanisms can lead to other problems, including contact with the criminal justice system or the removal of children from their care, compounding their pain and trauma.

As Alison (not her real name) described, following a series of traumatic events early in her life she became trapped in an abusive relationship which further exacerbated her problems. “When he met me I was a bubbly girl but I just went into myself. I started drinking really bad, because it just blocked everything out. I ended up turning into an alcoholic basically and I tried to kill myself.”

Agenda’s research shows that one in 20 women have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both a child and an adult. That’s 1.2 million women in England alone. Almost a third of women who have these experiences have an alcohol problem – that’s more than twice the rate among women who have little experience of violence and abuse.

These figures buck trends in the general population. Generally women are less likely to have problematic patterns of alcohol and drug use than men. Among people who have experienced violence and abuse, however, rates of alcohol problems among women and men are more similar.

Despite the clear links between trauma and addiction, many services fail to take women’s experiences of violence and abuse into account. Addiction treatment services are often male- dominated, meaning many women – particularly those who have experienced violence and abuse by men – do not feel safe.

Services have often been designed around male service users and so may have little understanding of the realities of women’s lives. And few have been designed to meet women’s needs, for example through providing childcare or women-only spaces.

Evidence shows that specialist services are few and far between. Only around half of all local authority areas in England (and five unitary authorities in Wales) offer support specifically for women experiencing substance use problems. Mixed-gender group-based substance use services are particularly unsuitable for women who have experienced abuse or violence, and yet this is often the only type of support available.

This is why it’s critical that women’s needs are taken into account in alcohol treatment services. Local areas must have adequate service provision for those with multiple and overlapping needs.

One example of good practice is the Trevi House service in Plymouth. There, mothers affected by alcohol and substance use problems can work on recovery without being separated from their children. This not only allows women to receive treatment, but keeps families together and children safe.

We need to see a far better gender-informed approach to supporting women who struggle with addictions. 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 further 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 enable women to maintain contact with their children.

Without addressing the issues underpinning women’s addictions, we risk continuing to fail women like Alison – preventing them from getting the support they need to move on with their lives and recover from trauma.

Agenda exists to ensure that women and girls at risk of abuse, poverty, poor mental health, addiction and homelessness get the support and protection they need.

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The policies laid out in the Alcohol Charter represent realistic, powerful ways to reduce the harm caused by alcohol. Help make them happen.

Sign up as an organisational supporter of the Charter and help the policies of the Charter become reality.

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