The number of women in Boston seeking treatment for drug addiction dropped significantly during the pandemic — and now that patients are starting to return, they have more acute needs than ever.

“I think that a lot of women in the community are mothers, maybe caretakers, and have other responsibilities since the impact of COVID and maybe they’re not able to prioritize their own treatment right now,” said Sarah Cataldo, intake coordinator at Victory Programs Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit that helps families facing homelessness and substance-use disorder.

Elizabeth Blackstone, director of residential recovery services at Victory Programs added, “Eventually when they do cycle back in, they might have a much more complex case because they’ve been living on the streets or using, you know, different drugs.”

Blackstone said Victory Programs offers community-based residential programs, and some women with complex mental health issues need more support than they can offer.

Blackstone said from January 2020 to June 2020, referrals for women seeking treatment dropped from 93 to 19. Last month, Victory Programs had 53 referrals, which is up, but still not back to regular levels. She said other organizations around Boston are seeing similar trends.

Tania, 34, has been living in one of Victory Programs’ residential treatment homes since last month after a battle with drugs that started in her teen years.

“I remember feeling this warm fuzzy feeling like I had just been wrapped in a blanket and swaddled, and I remember thinking I want to feel this way forever,” said Tania of her first time using OxyContin in high school.

Soon, Tania, who didn’t want to be identified by her last name, said she was spending every dollar she had on drugs, and later entered into a treatment program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

But Tania relapsed, and tried heroin.

“Until this day, I have to ride by that spot where we shot up for the first time where I ever stuck a needle in my arm,” she said. “I feel like that’s where it all began.”

Tania went through many difficult years of using various drugs, going to treatment programs and moving to different cities, she said. She had three children along the way.

“I knew this was not the way to live,” Tania said. “I just didn’t see a way out, and no one expected anything from me.”

Tania, like many other women, said she chose not to seek treatment during the peak of the pandemic because day care had closed and she needed to be home with her daughter.

She also said many people battling addiction don’t seek treatment due to the steady flow of unemployment income and stimulus checks that were made available due to COVID-19.

“Why would you seek treatment if you had a steady flow of income? A lot of people wouldn’t,” Tania said, adding, “Money in an addict’s hand is not good.”

Cataldo said other reasons such as restricted visitation due to coronavirus may also deter women from entering treatment. Fear of catching COVID while in residential treatment is also a concern, as congregate settings are known to be hot spots.

Many detox programs, which usually funnel women into residential treatment, shut down when the pandemic hit, contributing yet again to a decline in intakes.

Finally, Tania lost custody of her daughter. That’s when she knew she needed to get sober and stay sober.

“I decided I was going to do everything they tell me to do,” she said. “I’m not going to stand in my way.”

Tania was referred to Victory Programs, and said it was the best thing that could have happened for her recovery.

“I’m learning to like myself again with the help of everybody here,” she said.

As the pandemic improves and more women get back to treatment, Cataldo and Blackstone said more co-occurring programs that have clinicians on site to handle psychiatric issues as well as help with substance use disorder are needed.

Tania has hopes of starting some classes while in treatment and dreams of becoming a nurse one day. She told other women who may be in her situation, “It’s hard but it’s worth it. Get out of your own way. There’s lots of options for you.”



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