DC Health held two focus groups in March 2020 with a total of 13 people who use drugs. These sessions were safe spaces to come together to have honest discussions to better understand this community’s strengths, challenges, and possible solutions. Facilitators asked the group what was happening in their lives, including identifying their top concerns, service gaps, and what they see as the strengths of their community.
Participants reported using drugs for different reasons and so have varying concerns. People worry about balancing their life (e.g., job, family, mental health) with their drug use. Functional users depend on drugs to cope with life stressors, although the group also talked about the fine line between functional use and chaotic use.
One traumatic life event or loss can cause a functional user to fall into chaotic use, which can result in losing one of the key elements of their stability (job, housing, family, support, etc.). During chaotic use, relationships with family, employers, and other support systems are often compromised, leaving the people with fewer resources for survival. During such times, some reported, they still went to the doctor for annual checkups, but sexual health was not a priority — the main focus is getting to the next high.
Mothers who use drugs face additional barriers. If a mother loses her children due to addiction, it is difficult to regain custody. One program may require her to have custody before she can enroll in services. Other programs may require her to enroll in services before she can regain custody. Mothers expressed frustration with having to prove their fitness compared with fathers who do not experience the same pressures. Participants also noted that the focus is on opioids now and there is not enough support for those who use other drugs.
Strengths discussed in the group included:
Participants credit their recovery to community-based and faith-based programs that did not give up on them — faith-based programs, especially, which they said should be a part of wraparound services. The group also cited peer support workers as a vital part of their support system during recovery and said they should always be included in substance use interventions.