Spotlight on gender and trauma

RMIT’s Dr Kathryn Daley shares her research on the role of gender in how people respond to trauma at a Corrections Victoria panel today.

Dr Daley, from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, will join Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, survivor Tara Schultz and Corrections Minister Wade Noonan on the panel, held by Corrections Victoria to mark International Women’s Day.

How does gender affect our response to trauma?

I wasn’t originally looking at gender as an issue, but early in my PhD I found there were great differences in how young men and women responded to childhood trauma.

The women had histories of sexual abuse and cutting themselves. Their interviews revealed very similar experiences.

What are the experiences of young women in drug treatment?

Young women in treatment are faring worse than men on almost all measures of wellbeing. This disparity is increasingly being acknowledged, but most alcohol and other drug services were set up to work with young men.

For example, in a withdrawal unit (“detox”), there are usually common rooms with loud music and pool tables and other activities, but they are not necessarily places where young women feel comfortable and this is sometimes a barrier for them.

Young women are also less likely to discover services as they tend to be less “visible”; using drugs in isolation, rather than with friends, and also less likely to come before a Magistrate, who is the frequent source of referral for young men.

How is the sector responding to this?

In my PhD, I found the sector was increasingly aware of gender differences, but there is not a model of best practice for gender-informed practice. In turn, many were grappling with issues such as self-injury, uncertain of the best response.

Pathways into substance abuse are very gendered and it is important to understand this to guide best practice when working with these vulnerable young people.

How did you get into this particular field of research?

I always had an interest in social justice and social equity. Originally I was a youth drug and alcohol outreach worker and found that the research in the area wasn’t always consistent with what we saw in practice.

I felt it was fundamentally important that these young people were accurately represented in literature about them, as this would be what informed both policy and practice, having direct consequence on their lives.

I started doing an honours study in the area and then got a PhD scholarship to continue it further. I was very fortunate that the sector was so supportive of me doing this research, as this made it viable.

What form does your work with young women take?

My research involved meeting with people, often at outreach programs and services, taking their life histories, sitting down with them. For many it was their first opportunity to tell their story.

I would ask the women what were the positive aspects of cutting themselves. Usually people are quite negative when they ask about self-injury, and make them feel ashamed, but I took a different approach.

Understanding the function of self-injury gave me a way to understand the relationship between sexual abuse and drug abuse and how young women use both cutting and substance use as a way of managing extreme emotions.

How are they able to become agents of change?

These young women’s stories are used in the research process. It’s very much their biographies and I put them in the public space.

They are representative of the many and I have asked them to present with, or instead of, me so they can talk about the research findings from a personal perspective.

This resonates much more than a traditional research launch.

How does that translate to a Corrections setting?

More than 90 per cent of women in Corrections are there for drug offences.

Nearly all of them have this background of abuse and substance abuse, so staff are dealing with a traumatised population, rather than “criminals”.

Understanding trauma responses and the best practice in working with it will improve practice for Corrections.

Have you worked with Corrections on this or related research previously?

No, this is the first time I have presented to Corrections Victoria. I was asked to speak after I appeared, with several young people, at last year’s Victorian Youth Alcohol and Other Drugs Summit.

In summary

  • Research has shown that most young female drug offenders have similar histories of sexual abuse and cutting behaviour.
  • This can make traditional drug treatment programs, originally devised for young men, ineffective for them.
  • By sharing their stories they become agents of change.

Originally published by RMIT News