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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Connecting Virtually

Webcast on women, violence and substance use

Nancy Poole

Reprinted from the "Trauma and Victimization" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (3), p. 25

In the last week of September 2006, 200 researchers, policy makers and service providers from across Canada met “virtually” in a webcast to hear about:

  • connections between women’s experience of violence/trauma and substance use problems

  • developments in reducing the “mystifying separation”1 between anti-violence and addictions services

  • models for discussing substance use with women who have experienced violence

  • models from BC, Canada, UK and US that provide in-depth, integrated support

  • information helpful for women who are examining their own substance use following an experience of violence

  • other implications for research, policy and work with women

The webcast format allows many people to participate simultaneously. You view the presentation on your computer screen and hear the presenters through your computer speakers. And you can type in questions for the presenters. Responses, questions and information on this topic of violence and substance use connections rolled in from interested participants from coast to coast.

The content shared in the webcast (and summarized below) was the consensus of 20 women who work in violence- and addictions related agencies, and in research and policy contexts. These women had participated in a virtual “community of practice” over a four-month period from April through July 2006. This virtual community and the webcasts are part of a larger project entitled Coalescing on Women and Substance Use: Linking Research, Practice and Policy.

Compelling Connections

Women’s substance use is strongly associated with their experience of violence, abuse, assault and trauma. For example, alcohol problems are up to 15 times higher among women who are survivors of intimate partner violence than in the general population.2 Girls who experience physical and sexual abuse by dating partners are 2.5 times more likely to be smoking heavily within 30 days.3 Mothers who have children with fetal alcohol syndrome have serious histories of abuse and partners who don’t want them to quit drinking.4

Service silos

In spite of the strong relationship between substance use and experience of violence/trauma, few service agencies have philosophies and visible services that integrate assistance to women. Many anti-violence services restrict access to women who have substance use problems. In addition, women seeking help with violence concerns have received conflicting information about the nature of substance misuse and its connection to woman abuse/trauma, and about treatment and support options.

Integrating support

Service providers recognize that there are many roads to change or recovery.5 For women with substance use problems, a key step in their growth may be to explore how substance use is connected to experiences of woman abuse, early childhood trauma or other forms of gender-based violence. We need to create contexts for integrating this knowledge into both anti-violence and substance use services.

Resources for supporting discussion of substance use problems by anti-violence service providers were discussed. It was pointed out how safety planning can be useful as a common theme for providing support. Many anti-violence services, such as the Phoenix Transition House in Prince George and Atira Women’s Resource Society in locations throughout the Lower Mainland, have found ways of making it safe to talk about one’s substance use in the context of their services.

Seeking safety

Anti-violence services have also identified the need to provide more in-depth support for women experiencing trauma and substance use problems. For example, service providers at the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre (VWSAC) observed that women with trauma-related and substance use problems are often in crisis. They rotate through services, unable to get their complex issues addressed.6 In response, VWSAC staff, in collaboration with other community providers, are offering integrated treatment groups that utilize the Seeking Safety model7-8 as a foundation.

For women, care systems have often failed to recognize the overlap between violence, substance use and mental health problems, so haven’t provided integrated support and treatment. Anti-violence services, though, are increasingly rising to the challenge of providing such integrated support.

Policy and research that articulate and support this integration are much needed. Virtual learning communities have a role in facilitating researchers, program providers and policy makers to come together to engage with the issues and be inspired to act on promising strategies.

The Coalescing on Women’s Substance Use: Linking Research, Practice and Policy project is sponsored by the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, co-sponsored by the Canadian Women’s Health Network and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, and funded by Health Canada under the Drug Strategy Community Initiatives Fund.

About the author
Nancy is a Provincial Research Consultant on Women’s Substance Use Issues with BC Women’s Hospital and with the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health. She works on research and knowledge exchange relating to policy and services for women with substance use problems.
  1. Humphreys, C., Thiara, R. & Regan, L. (2005). Domestic violence and substance use: Overlapping issues in separate services. London, UK: Home Office and Greater London Authority.

  2. Barron, J. (2005). Multiple challenges in services for women experiencing domestic violence. Housing, Care and Support, 8(1): 11.

  3. Silverman, J.G., Raj, A., Mucci, L. et al. (2001). Dating violence against adolescent girls and associated substance use, unhealthy weight control, sexual risk behavior, pregnancy, and suicidality. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286(5): 572-579.

  4. Astley, S.J. (2004). Fetal alcohol syndrome prevention in Washington State: Evidence of success. Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, 18(5): 344-351.

  5. Kasl, C.D. (1992). Many roads, one journey: Moving beyond the 12 steps. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

  6. Poole, N. & Pearce, D. (2005). Seeking safety, an integrated model for women experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse: A pilot project of the Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre, Evaluation report. Victoria, BC: Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre.

  7. Najavits, L.M. (2002). Seeking Safety: A treatment manual for PSTD and substance abuse. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

  8. Gose, S. (2004). Post-traumatic stress and substance use. Visions: BC's Mental Health and Addictions Journal, 2(4): 23-24.


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