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How to develop gender-sensitive drug treatment

It’s International Women’s Day and an ideal time to reflect on the importance of thinking about gender- specific responses in alcohol and other drug treatment.

We know that the needs of women (including trans and cis-gender women) in alcohol and other drug treatment differ greatly from men and that different, gender sensitive responses are needed for good outcomes.

Women entering treatment programs have high rates of stigma, trauma, abuse, violence, financial hardship and childcare issues, all of which need to be considered alongside alcohol and other drug concerns for successful treatment outcomes.

A 2014 report on women’s access to alcohol and other drug services by peak body NADA, supported by 360Edge, found that:

  • Women access treatment at lower rates than men and are under-represented in the drug and alcohol treatment system.
  • A range of issues create specific barriers for women’s access to drug and alcohol services including social stigma, childcare and custody concerns, financial issues and models of care.
  • Women have a number of specific risk factors including higher rates of mental health issues; more severe clinical profile and complex presentations; greater risk taking; pregnancy and childcare issues; and greater social and economic disadvantage.
  • Evidence-based interventions for drug and alcohol treatment in general, such as behaviour therapies (e.g. contingency management, community reinforcement approach) cognitive behaviour therapies (e.g. coping skills and relapse prevention), motivational interviewing and 12-step-facilitation, are suitable for women.
  • Access to childcare, prenatal care, women-only programs, psycho-education sessions focused on women-specific topics, mental health and comprehensive services that offer multiple components have been associated with improved outcomes for women.
  • In addition to treatments that are effective for women in general, specific groups of women (such as LGBTQI and culturally and linguistically diverse) have specific needs that should be addressed by drug treatment services through individualised assessment and treatment planning.

Women’s alcohol and other drug treatment should be based on a holistic approach which acknowledges, and takes into account, gender-specific barriers and challenges.

Ideally women should have access to women’s only services, which have been developed to address some of the barriers that prevent women from attending or remaining in treatment.

360Edge recently undertook a routine continuous quality cycle review of the alcohol and other drug residential and day programs of Toora Women Inc, a not-for-profit organisation that delivers gender-specific services to women in the ACT. Our Gap and MapTM analysis included a rapid review of program operations and resources to identify strengths and limitations and areas for possible improvement in the program, based on Toora’s mission, vision and values. This highlighted key features of best-practice gender-responsive treatment, including a holistic approach to diverse treatment and support needs, as well as identifying areas to enhance, improve and expand services.

All treatment services, including mix-gender services, can be designed to meet the specific needs of women. Alcohol and other drug treatment services whose practice is gender-responsive and meets the needs of women increase the likelihood of good clinical outcomes and reduce the risk of unintended consequences.