Moving Forward with Women's Addiction Treatment in BC

Carol Savage

Reprinted from "Women's" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (4), p. 30

Alarmed. That’s the only way to describe how I’ve felt recently when challenged—not by the expected sources—but by allies within the mental health and addictions system in our region. In these times of ‘making do,’ or at best, making the ‘business case’ in community services, I have become accustomed to justifying to others how our limited resources are applied in the BC addiction services system of care. But when those I normally look to for wisdom and support start asking for justification, I become alarmed.

The challenges come in the form of various questions: Why should we have treatment resources specifically for women in the addictions system when we don’t have them in the mental health system? Why do we need this program specifically?

In an environment where it is essential to make the most of the resources we do have, these questions are reasonable, and we answer them as well as we can. We’re content that, for the time being at least, we are able to maintain the substantial gains BC has made over the past 15 years. Women and men throughout the province—on provincial and local committees, working with community partners or on their own— have continuously improved women’s addiction treatment services.

What are those gains? To illustrate, I will list a few examples of those in which I have participated.

When I began working with Alcohol and Drug Services (ADS) in the mid’80s, Victoria (like many BC communities) had an active Women’s Committee that provided leadership, learning and support for colleagues throughout Vancouver Island.

During the late 1980s, ADS regional management partnered with Aurora House in Vancouver to develop a parallel residential treatment centre for Island women. Maiya House operated for several years, until decisions were made to create Aurora Centre as a Centre for Excellence within BC Women’s Hospital, and to fund women’s intensive day treatment programs as an option in local communities.

In local areas, start-up of 16-Step groups was supported, and partnerships were forged with womenserving agencies such as transition houses and sexual assault centres. ADS was involved in developing the LINK training program that explored the relationships between substance misuse and violence.

During the years ADS was part of the former Ministry for Children and Families, new harm reduction methods and programs were implemented for women with addictions who were also parenting (e.g., Step Stones in Nanaimo).

The creation of Aurora Centre has solidified our gains because it provides a provincial focus and connection point for the ongoing development of women’s addiction services. Aurora Centre and staff of BC’s Women’s Hospital (including guest editor for this edition of Visions, Nancy Poole) have been key in the development of Health Canada’s Best Practices in Treatment and Rehabilitation for Women with Substance Use Problems, and in the recent BC framework document: Every Door is the Right Door.

To remind ourselves why these gains matter, let’s recall what our clients have taught us over time: the life experiences women bring to their problem substance use and to their recovery, the impacts of their use, the supports and services they value, the barriers they face, and the factors that determine their treatment outcomes are often substantially different than for men. What the women who participate in our Nanaimo Clinic talk about—apart from the obvious importance of emotional safety—is that experiencing recovery with other women, and seeing their own recovery reflected in other women. is one of the greatest therapeutic tools we provide.

In my current work assignment, I have been forced to think deeply about how to protect what we have created so far. And I finally realized I need to think about the challenge differently. This shift of thinking was helped by re-reading the guiding principles from the 1991 recommendations of the Alcohol and Drug Programs’ Women’s Committee.3 The following reflect my changed outlook:

  1. A commitment to avoid ‘addictive thinking.’ Specifically, more (of the same) is not necessarily better. Thus, we are not looking automatically to expansion but rather at what we have and how we can improve it.

  2. Comprehensive changes to the system must occur as a process rather than an event.

It is important to not only maintain the gains, but to continue moving forward on the base we have established. If we can continue to be open to an evolving system, stay clear on our purpose and principles, demonstrate knowledge and confidence in our own experience as well as the evidence base, and continue to challenge as well as support one another, what comes next may not be a loss; it may be another gain.

 
About the Author

Carol is a former provincial women’s services consultant working in program development and management in BC’s Alcohol and Drug Services (now Addiction Services). She currently works with mental health and addiction services in the Central Vancouver Island region

Footnotes
  1. Health Canada. (2001). Best Practices: Treatment and Rehabilitation for Women with Substance Use Problems. Ottawa, ON: Health Canada.

  2. BC Ministry of Health Services. (2004). Every Door is the Right Door: A British Columbia Planning Framework to Address Problematic Substance Use and Addiction. Victoria, BC: MOHS.

  3. BC Ministry of Health and Ministry Responsible for Seniors. (1991). Recommendations of the Women’s Sub-Committee, Alcohol and Drug Programs. Victoria, BC: MOH.

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