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CeDAR, NCAD partner to highlight issues of gender, trauma

May 13, 2015
by Julia Brown, Associate Editor
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The opening plenary speaker for the 2015 National Conference on Addiction Disorders and Behavioral Healthcare Executive Summit (NCAD), Aug. 1-4 in St. Louis, will be women's treatment leader Stephanie S. Covington, PhD, LCSW, co-director, Institute for Relational Development and the Center for Gender and Justice. Covington will speak about the importance of gender and trauma considerations in treatment practices, what it means for programming to be gender-responsive, and how the culture or environment of a program can become trauma-informed. This will kick off the conference's dedicated track on gender and sexuality issues sponsored by The Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation (CeDAR).

Covington says women’s services, men’s treatment, adolescent treatment and caring for the transgender population are all relatively new considerations to the addiction field. Over the last 20 years, talking about gender-specific services has really meant services for women. “Finally I think people are paying a bit more attention,” she adds.

While some treatment centers have aligned around offering co-ed services, women’s groups, or even separating male and female clients, Covington says gender-specific treatment is still an issue with which most facilities struggle. “We see many girls that are totally lost in groups that are predominately male-focused,” she says of separating gender within adolescent treatment, which has been historically co-ed. “People in the adolescent treatment field have further to go than some of the adult programs.”

Steven Millette, CeDAR's executive director, has been working with Covington on gender-responsive treatment, clinical protocols and culture in organizations around gender–responsive care since 1999.

“It started with a focus on women and addressing the needs that women have,” he says. “My first day on the job was addressing the attendees at the first Women’s Conference that CeDAR put on in October of 2011. So from relatively early on, it was hugely important to have gender-separate, gender-specific and gender-responsive treatment services.”

In 2013, the decision was made for the conference to address issues involving both sexes. “We divided the conference in half and tried to represent both equally,” Millette says, referring to the shift to Gender Matters. By 2014, the conference was entirely focused on men’s issues and now it will prioritize the gender continuum. . Regarding the decision to partner with NCAD, Millette says it was time to bring these topics to a larger audience.

“Men and women; that’s what most of our culture thinks when they think of gender, but we all know if you dig a little deeper, it’s really a false binary,” he says. “[We’ll be] bringing in the LGBTQ population, NALGAP and looking at gender in a much broader context, because many people express their sense of identity in many different ways. We see the importance of having all three of those frames of reference and understanding our species across a spectrum of preferences, perspectives and biologies.”

Gender Matters aims to drive home the importance of gender-specific and trauma-informed treatment. Millette explains that separating care by gender is inherently a better quality of care, because individuals of whatever gender shouldn’t have to settle for treatment programs that don’t understand their history and needs. A major focus, he says, involves addressing healing in a relational paradigm and giving practical tips and strategies that will be immediately useful to those in attendance.  

Truly trauma-informed
Gender Matters promotes the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSHA) value-based services, which emphasizes being gender-responsive, trauma-informed, recovery-oriented and culturally competent.

Millette explains that being trauma-informed as an organization means not only focusing on trauma from a clinical perspective—being trauma-integrated or providing trauma-specific treatment services, assessments and treatment planning—but also from an organizational perspective. It’s important to think in terms of both staff and patients, and commit to five core values: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment.

“Those five things need to guide how you run your agency. For many people, this means you have to think about providing services differently,” Covington says.  “Many of the environments that people come into, either to work or for recovery, often are harsh. A lot of places are still very confrontational.”

Being trauma-informed is often easily misunderstood, she adds, but it really means adapting business operations so a trauma survivor can benefit from the services provided. The old mentality of treatment where clients aren’t given choices has to be reconsidered; reshaping environments, attitudes of counselors, and overall management will be key.

Covington recommends management teams role-play a new admission of a patient affected by trauma and do a walk-through of their facilities. “Are there lights on in the parking lot? How does the receptionist talk to you? How do the accounting and billing departments speak to you? All of those things [are important],” she says.

“We’re really working at the meta of cultural competence when we start thinking of being trauma-informed and how that helps shape the way services are designed,” Millette says. “It’s hard to be truly trauma-informed or gender-responsive without the other. They go hand in glove.”