Caring, not punishing: understanding the links between drug use and complex trauma


In this article, Thea Deakin-Greenwood reflects on the links between substance use and complex trauma. Rather than continuing to punish drug use through criminalisation, which can exacerbate the ongoing impacts of trauma on peoples’ lives, restorative justice approaches can respond to harm and trauma through care. By Thea Deakin-Greenwood, Central Tablelands and Blue Mountains Community Legal Centre.

Two older people hold hands in black and white image.

Caring, not punishing: understanding the links between drug use and complex trauma

There’s a clear link between trauma and drug use, according to the research of Professor Katherine Mills from the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use. In Australia 80% of people who enter treatment for substance use disorders report to have experienced a traumatic event. These findings well reflect the experience of clients we see in the community legal sector who may use alcohol and other drugs as a coping response to deal with the impacts of early life trauma, such as child sexual assault.

Through unique outreach programs such as Legal Advice and Education in Prison – a partnership between three community legal centres providing legal advice and caseworks services outreach to women's prisons in Sydney – we also find high correlation between childhood trauma, victimization and incarceration. In other words, the criminalisation of victimisation. In 2015, the Inmate Health Survey, which is regularly conducted by Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network, found that:

Almost two thirds of participants (65.2%) in the NPHS had experienced or witnessed at least one type of traumatic event. There was a slight sex difference, with women (70.1%) more likely to report such an event than men (64.9%)...

At Central Tablelands and Blue Mountains Community Legal Centre (formally Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre), our service has developed a survivor oriented restorative justice project called Transforming Justice Australia. This work will directly respond to the needs of survivors of childhood sexual assault, sexual and family violence many of whom have ongoing contact with the juvenile and adult legal system as survivors or defendants, an experience which often further traumatises them.

A restorative justice framework centres on survivor needs and yet also provides community safety by engaging the person responsible and providing a pathway into support and treatment – a process which can be deeply transformative for both survivors, offender and their communities. International evidence demonstrates that restorative justice is the most cost-effective and constructive method of addressing survivor needs, and those responsible are more likely to accept accountability, accept and maintain contact with treatment services. At Transforming Justice we are enhancing our practices by learning from international experiences and working in collaboration with our research partner Dr Jane Bolitho, Associate Professor and recently appointed Diana Unwin Chair of Restorative Justice at Victoria University, Wellington NZ.

Restorative justice has wide application and is also used overseas to address other social harms, such as substance use and drug-related crime. Programs such as the community-based Constructing Circles of Peace is now the preferred bail-referred support program for drug-related offences in Arizona, USA. Other programs such as Thames Valley Restorative Justice Service in the United Kingdom work in collaboration with courts, prisons, Police and other community agencies to address serious harms including drug offences.

Our experiences working in the community legal sector aligns with a large body of research to demonstrate the link between problematic drug or alcohol use and complex trauma and we firmly believe that compassionate, evidence-based responses to harm such as substance abuse, are preferable to further incarceration and criminalization. We are advocating for an evidence-based treatment response, enhanced public health treatment services and a reformed justice system that is centred around the needs of people who have experienced harm and trauma. Continuing to punish drug use through criminalisation can exacerbate the ongoing impacts of trauma on peoples’ lives, and so we support compassionate measures to respond to those who have experienced trauma with care.

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