Many women, especially those who live in difficult circumstances, feel like their lives are out of control. They don’t see any way out of their situation. This can lead to feelings of helplessness. Many things can make a woman feel this way; for example, she might:

  • live in poverty or other difficult circumstances
  • live with someone who is physically or emotionally abusive
  • have a disability, such as FASD, or a physical limitation
  • raise her children alone (whether or not she has a partner)
  • feel isolated or live in remote locations with few supports

These difficult circumstances can be made worse by feelings of depression, trauma, shame, and  stigma. When things seem out of control, a woman might use substances to make herself feel more secure or to forget her problems for a while.

Women, depression, and substance use are often linked
Often women use substances as a way to deal with depression. And more women than men experience depression. Women who use substances and experience depression have said that being free to discuss their substance use is an enormous benefit. It supports their experiences. And it helps them see reasons for substance use and its connection to their depression.

Women, trauma, and substance use are often linked
Trauma can be the result of many things, but is often the result of violence or abuse. Women’s experience of trauma, either in childhood or as adults, is often associated with depression. And trauma often leads to substance use. Research shows that:

  • women may be more likely than men to use substances as a result of experiencing trauma
  • the experience of trauma increases the likelihood by as much as four times that women will use substances
Trauma impacts on both a woman’s use of substances AND her ability to quit using substances. The connections among trauma, substance use, and women’s lives are important for service providers to remember. Women who use substances and have experienced trauma often attach deep meanings to their substance use. This makes quitting difficult to tackle or even consider.

This can be especially true for women in our communities. Aboriginal women struggle with many kinds of trauma. In addition to the trauma caused by abuse and by living in distressed circumstances, trauma for Aboriginal people can include:

  • the effects of historical abuse and residential schools. These lingering scars have  continued across generations. And they continue to affect the well-being of adults and youth in our communities even though the original abuse ended years ago. For example, children in the residential schools didn’t learn how to be loved or show love to others. So when they became parents, they couldn’t show love to their own children either. Even though their children didn’t attend residential school, their children feel the effects of it. This is often called “inter-generational trauma.”
  • the effects of colonization, assimilation, and government policies. Over hundreds of years,  this has resulted in the unwilling loss of the rights, culture, language, and land of Aboriginal people. Often, many of our communities are left without a sense of belonging or place. These historic traumas are intensified when many of our people also experience cultural isolation, racism, and living in conditions of hardship and poverty.
Want to find out more about the effects of trauma on Aboriginal communities? Check this out:
The Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centre—Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: a Position Paper 

Shame and stigma often prevent pregnant women from talking about substance use. Pregnant women (and mothers with young children) who use substances face a lot of social stigma. This can lead to feelings of intense guilt and shame. Stigma can drive substance use underground and makes it difficult for women to talk about. In fact, guilt and shame often lead to increased substance use as a way to cope with these negative feelings. It’s a vicious circle. Substance use becomes an underground activity rooted in guilt, shame ... and increased substance use.

Try this

  • Talk openly about the woman’s life.
  • Accept that substance use has powerful benefits in many situations, in particular for  women who experience depression or trauma.
  • Encourage women to discuss what they see are the benefits they get from substance use.  An open, gentle discussion about those benefits can lead to a plan to reduce or quit substance use. For more information about this topic, go to the Strategies section of this site, here
What helps the mother helps the baby. Your role as a sensitive, caring, and accepting service provider is one of the most important parts of a woman’s journey. Your open relationship with a pregnant substance user is one of the top supports that leads to less substance use among pregnant women. And this means babies will be healthier.
Want more information about what it’s like for women who struggle with substance use and addiction? Check this out:

The Life You Want: A Young Woman’s Struggle Through Addiction

The Life You Want: A Young Woman's Struggle Though Addiction from Thunderstone Pictures on Vimeo.

Want more information about the context of the lives of women who struggle with substance use during pregnancy? Check this out:

Why do girls and women drink alcohol during pregnancy?