Gender imbalance

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The lockdown may be having a disproportionate effect on female service users, warns Gordon Hay.

Gordon Hay is a reader at the Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University
Gordon Hay is a reader at the Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown impacts on all society, and is likely to be impacting more on groups such as those in contact with drug or alcohol services. Research studies are being launched to explore how COVID-19 and lockdown impact on people who use drugs, and there is a wider discussion about how levels of alcohol use within the general population have changed over the last few months (DDN, May, page 5) and issues such as the relationship between domestic abuse and alcohol use during the current crisis. While new research studies are being set up, existing monitoring and surveillance systems can quickly be augmented to highlight emerging issues facing those in contact with drug or alcohol services.

The Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University has, since 2013, hosted the Integrated Monitoring System (IMS) which records activity at a range of primarily low-threshold drug and alcohol services across Merseyside and Cheshire. Just as the UK entered lockdown, six additional questions were added to the monitoring system to enable services and commissioners to identify additional issues facing their clients.

As services were not mandated to ask the additional questions, the numbers are relatively small but large enough to highlight the impact of gender. Two months from lockdown, emerging findings from 1,435 contacts with services involving 468 clients suggest that female clients are impacted more than males. Overall, very few clients (about 1 per cent) report concerns about having symptoms of coronavirus. Interestingly, only a similarly small amount reported problems accessing medicines, healthcare or harm-reduction supplies – however this finding is unlikely to be representative of all people who use drugs or have problems with alcohol, as the monitoring is being undertaken in healthcare, particularly harm-reduction, settings.

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More clients report difficulties in social distancing and accessing basic needs such as food. While social distancing was reported as an issue for 22 per cent of female clients, only about 10 per cent of male clients reported difficulties. For accessing basic needs, 6 per cent of female clients as opposed to 2 per cent of male clients reported issues.

Behavioural change

Changes in the clients’ alcohol, drug or tobacco use were explored. Although it cannot be assumed that any changes are increases or decreases, 15 per cent of female clients reported a change compared to 6 per cent of male clients. While all of these differences are seen to be statistically significant, the starkest gender difference occurred when considering mental health, with 23 per cent of female clients reporting that their mental health had been affected by the current environment, compared to 10 per cent of male clients.

Research typically shows that women who use drugs face additional challenges, for example the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) suggests that women are particularly likely to experience stigma and social disadvantage and to have less social support. They may be likely to come from families with substance use problems and have a substance-using partner, have faced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and may have co-occurring mental disorders.

Information monitoring

The emerging information from this monitoring system is not a replacement for more detailed research, as we can only highlight that there are differences and would only be able to speculate on why these differences are occurring, and research is needed to examine why females are experiencing lockdown differently to males. Those working in drug and alcohol services, and commissioners of these and similar services, should be alert to any additional difficulties faced by female clients and seek to explore them in more detail during contacts with female clients.