Connecting vulnerable women to critical services

Many women who experience domestic violence also have problems with substance use and mental health issues. The problems are related, but the health-care services for them are woefully disconnected.

“Providers, and the woman herself, may not understand the complex way these problems are interconnected,” says Dr. Robin Mason. “The result is that the woman may not get the kind of help she really needs or she may be forced to look for help from multiple services – often in entirely different locations.”

That’s what inspired Mason and her colleague Dr. Brenda Toner (CAMH) to develop an innovative new curriculum, Making Connections: When Domestic Violence, Mental Health, and Substance Use Problems Co-Occur.

“The curriculum is designed to help front-line workers, who are disconnected within the broader health and social service system, to communicate with each other,” Mason explains.

Funded by the province of Ontario, the evidence-based curriculum was enhanced by input gathered from 300 front-line workers from across Ontario, as well as women with lived experience.

Making Connections is helping workers do just that. It’s multi-modal, to be accessible to all learning levels and styles. There is a text manual, a series of online modules, four dramatic scenarios in video format, and a one-day, face-to face, cross-sectoral workshop.

Mason’s curriculum is already having impact, as a direct result of its pilot testing phase.

“One of the workers who participated in the pilot testing phase needed to refer an extremely vulnerable woman to a service that would meet her needs,” says Mason. “Because of Making Connections, the worker was able to recognize the nature of the problem right away, and called someone she met at one of our workshops.”

As a result, within hours the woman was getting the help she needed.

“Before our program, finding the appropriate service would have taken days, or it may not have happened at all,” says Mason. “It’s so gratifying to see that our hard work is already helping women across Ontario.”

Dr. Robin Mason was awarded the Excellence in Education Award at the 18th annual Nursing Network on Violence against Women International Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia. The award recognizes her many important contributions to educate health-care professionals about how to better support women who are experiencing violence. At an event on International Women’s Day (March 8, 2012), Making Connections was showcased to different branches of the provincial government, as well as front-line workers who support women experiencing violence, mental health and or substance use problems. Also in attendance were community partners including the Ontario Women’s Directorate, the Ministry of Community and Social Services, and Echo: Improving Women’s Health in Ontario (the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long- Term Care). Mason is a scientist at WCRI and a University of Toronto assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.