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Stigma a barrier to women accessing drug, alcohol treatment – study

Women using drugs and alcohol can feel stigmatised and shamed when seeking support from professional services.

Women using drugs and alcohol can feel stigmatized and shamed when seeking support from professional services. This is according to a study – “Women, Addictions, Mental Health, Dishonesty, and Crime Stigma: Solutions to Reduce the Social Harms of Stigma” by Sarah Page, Sophia Fedorowicz, Fiona McCormack, and Stephen Whitehead – that appeared in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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The research is based on the experiences of women using community drug and alcohol treatment services across the West Midlands, as well as professionals in the field.

Interviews and focus groups with women using services were conducted by Staffordshire University in partnership with Expert Citizens CIC, and a world café event was undertaken with professionals. The research collaboration included the Centre for Justice Innovation, which led on data collection via interviews with professionals.

According to co-author Page, “while there are pockets of great practice, there are also times when the words and actions of professionals across drug and alcohol services, health and mental health, social work and the criminal justice sector can leave women feeling failed.

“We found that women very much experience the stigma of the ‘lying drug addict’ and as a result, they’re constantly having to prove themselves. This can create significant social and emotional harm to the individual.”

One woman in the study spoke about not being believed after reporting that a police officer had sexually assaulted her. Another was accused of taking drugs after providing a urine sample, which turned out to be a mistake made by a professional and could have resulted in the woman losing her child when the inaccurate findings were shared with social services. Evidence was also found that some professionals misrepresent events in case notes, including legal documents for court hearings, which adds to the emotional trauma experienced by women.

The findings “establish that stigma negatively impacts the identification of treatment needs and access to appropriate support. Social harms to women with addictions could be significantly reduced with timely, authentic, honest, gender-informed and trauma-informed practices.”

Other recommendations include mandatory training with regular updates for professionals in all related services pertaining to trauma, gender discrimination and harassment, ethical professional practice, being non-judgmental, and responding to service user complaints.

“It is important to recognize that women in recovery are working really hard to prove themselves,” Page ended.

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