Ideas about who uses drug and alcohol services and how they use them need to be challenged. In Hastings, the CGL Women’s Hub has been quietly doing this. However, in the run up to the publication of a report on its work, the noises coming out of the Women’s Hub are getting louder.
In a way it’s a simple idea. Create a place where service users want to go, that meets their needs… and meet them there.
CGL (or Change Grow Live to give it it’s full name), is the main provider of drug and alcohol support services across Sussex. In August 2021, a new initiative with Fulfilling Lives saw the appointment of Rachel Payne, a practice development worker who identified a need for better treatment pathways for women. Nationally, treatment services have seen considerably more men access their services than women (69% to 31%, PHE 2020). For many this has reinforced the idea that men are more likely to need the service. However, there are a few working in these services who have been questioning whether the way a service is offered can be a barrier to more women accessing effective treatment. The CGL Women’s Hub seems to suggest this is the case.
Katie Lowe went to the weekly Women’s Hub to see first-hand what is happening at a service which is seeing a 78% increase in engagement compared with keyworker meetings and a nearly 300% increase in their participation compared to groups run out of their high street offices. As a psychology student on placement with Fulfilling Lives, Katie had no previous experience with drug and alcohol services and really didn’t know what to expect:
When I got there, I was given a warm welcome and encouraged to get involved in the craft session that had already started. I later found out this is run every week by one of CGL’s volunteers. What struck me early on was how much everyone seemed to want to be there. Not just the women but the staff too. Rachel filled me in on the details: The Hub meets every Tuesday at a local community venue. This allows the service to provide an inclusive women-only space. This neutral venue is not associated with medical treatment, men who may or may not pose a risk or the stigma of being seen walking in from a busy high street. Deciding to run it on a Tuesday was not an accident. Rachel mapped out the other services women might want to attend and found a space that didn’t clash. Staff at the Hub have encouraged women to try out these different services, with small groups arranging by themselves to go together. In some cases, their participation has gone from just turning up for a required medical appointment to attending multiple support groups across the week.
Women can come and go as they please, take part in any of the available activities or just sit and chat. It’s their choice. With an average of 2.6 hours spent at the Hub when they do go, it suggests they get involved in a lot. Local charity Dom’s Food Mission provides supplies for breakfast and lunch. There’s the 2-hour creative group which I dropped in to, often running alongside a beautician offering hair and nail treatments and once a month a hairdresser. After lunch there is an accommodation specialist on hand for drop-in advice, a space to generally chat and get support and regular visits from an NHS sexual health nurse (who reports being able to see as many clients in an hour at the Hub as a whole day trying to meet them in the community). Then there’s acupuncture with a guided meditation followed by a yoga session before everything ends at 3pm. Coming together in this way has allowed women to meet with friends and make new ones in a place that feels safe. It seems to restore social and relational experiences in a way that feels normal in a sector where treatment can be retraumatising for many women.
Friendships, community, meals and clothes are all things we can take for granted if we are not dealing with multiple complex needs. However, Rachel will tell you this busy schedule wasn’t always the plan. Local services have been as much drawn to the Hub as the women themselves, offering support and staff time, all focused on a shared desire for women to get the service they need. Outreach workers, care coordinators and keyworkers from CGL, Seaview and Project Adder have all been involved in running and planning activities. Others have provided quality clothes donations and the combination of a local branch of Tesco and the Hygiene Bank provided items to give to women for free.
Taking this approach has the potential to make a huge impact on the way substance misuse services are structured, and how clients access treatment. There are spaces at the Hub for care coordinators and outreach workers to meet confidentially with women. The Women’s Hub has also been used by occupational therapists, domestic violence workers from Respite Rooms, HomeWorks and the Rough Sleepers Initiative, to meet clients and connect them to CGL’s treatment pathway. So far there’s been cases of women accessing CGL treatment by coming along to the Hub, assessments being carried out at the Hub, and this has even led to women going to detox and rehab. In a way it’s a simple idea. Create a place where service users want to go, that meets their needs… and meet them there. The statistics back this up as a place women with multiple and complex needs want to go. Since it began in November 2021, the Hub has seen 47 different women with an average attendance of 63% – no mean feat for a weekly programme with a service user group often considered ‘difficult to engage.
With Rachel’s own interest and the years-long investment of Fulfilling Lives in specialist women’s services, this approach made sense. However, there is already talk of how this approach might better meet the needs of other marginalised and minority service user groups who are not accessing treatment at CGL’s main offices. With 65% of service users accessing treatment by self-referral or through family and friends (PHE 2020), creating spaces that feel safe for marginalised people will be vital to genuinely inclusive treatment pathways.
Providing the service is inexpensive, with activities and groups being offered free of charge by the different services involved. Many of the staff can use the space to do work that they would have been doing anyway and reach several clients at the same time. There is a small cost for venue hire and arts and crafts projects but that is easily justified by the reach of the service. Creating and chatting with other women is what makes the Hub what it is. Rachel and the team are using these activities to engage with some of the most marginalised and excluded women, reaching out and connecting in a meaningful way.
It’s early days but all the indications are that the Women’s Hub is demonstrating a model of drug and alcohol treatment that is meaningful. There are many positives to this approach; building a safe, inclusive environment for women to access services which otherwise might have felt unsafe. Of course, moving from centralised office spaces would be unfamiliar to most in substance misuse services. There are also some logistical challenges to booking suitable community venues (made easier in the wake of the pandemic as bookings dried up leaving space for new initiatives like this). However, the early signs present an exciting challenge to drug and alcohol services that will be hard to ignore.
Katie Lowe, Psychology student on placement with Fulfilling Lives
David Garret, Practice Development Coordinator
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