Research to bridge the gap between partner abuse and substance use disorders

In the United States, it’s estimated more than 20 million people age 12 and older have a substance use disorder and more than 10 million women and men experience partner violence.

While these issues are often addressed separately, studies show most people affected by partner violence or substance abuse also have needs related to the other issue.

Combining interventions seems logical – but it is challenging

Elizabeth Armstrong, assistant professor of social work, seeks to understand how social service systems in the U.S. respond to these issues and why there’s a tendency to treat them separately.

Now at the University of Maine, Armstrong analyzes this issue in her research project, “Building Bridges: Organizational efforts to address partner violence and substance use disorders.”

According to Armstrong, organizations treating these issues tend to be siloed in nature with little meaningful integration between them. Evidence suggests addressing both issues together may improve outcomes and engagement in services – and yet very few service providers address both issues in a meaningful way.

And the organizations that do provide both services often struggle to present them in an integrated way due to various licensing requirements and other legal obstacles.

Bridging the gap locally, and beyond

One possible reason for the divide between the two intervention systems is the trend for partner violence to have a criminal justice orientation to intervention while substance abuse has a medical orientation to treatment. The difference may cause interventions to be pulled in different directions.

An example of this is that partner violence shelters often provide busing to school for survivors’ children under federal laws related to homelessness. When substance use treatment programs allow children to accompany parents into treatment – a capacity the majority of residential programs lack – they are not covered by the same policies and are unable to offer busing services. As a result, survivors in need of substance abuse treatment who have older children may be forced to leave them in unsafe situations or go without treatment.

Other obstacles could be when domestic assaults involve substance abuse on the part of perpetrators, in many municipalities, judges will mandate substance abuse treatment, which may be covered by insurance, but not interventions for partner violence, which insurance does not cover. Another issue is that state regulations for partner violence perpetrator programs often limit the extent to which they can address non-partner violence issues, including substance abuse, according to Armstrong.

She hopes this pilot data will develop into a broader scope with local relevance and she continues to compile data for future publication.

For instance, she wants to know whether Maine’s rural nature affects treatment models for those needing partner abuse or substance abuse interventions? Do limited resources make the process easier or harder? How could the new emphasis on trauma within behavior health facilitate integration?

Domestic violence accounts for 45 percent of assaults reported to Maine police and many assaults go unreported. Substance abuse and overdose deaths in Maine have also been on the rise in recent years.

“With the number of people requiring interventions increasing each year, the research by Dr. Armstrong could have significant impact in Maine – and beyond,” said Kody Varahramyan, Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School.

Anyone seeking services for substance use should contact their health care provider. Those seeking services for partner violence should contact the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence’s hotline, 1-866-834-HELP. Students seeking substance abuse treatment can contact the Counseling Center, 207.581.4040 or Cutler Health Center, 207.581.4000 at the Orono campus.

Media Contact: Christel Peters, 207.581.3571

Armstrong is an assistant professor of social work in the College of Natural Sciences, Agriculture and Forestry.

This research was funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School’s Summer Faculty Research Funds.