Dealing with addiction is difficult. For mothers, it is even more difficult.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — It’s been 12 years since Argentina made sweeping changes to its mental health laws, mandating equitable access to dignified care. However, according to the country’s top drug policy authority, less than a third of residential centers that offer free drug treatment admit women and only six admit women with children.

Lack of facilities, combined with rising rates of substance use and persistent prejudice against female users, has made it difficult for women – especially mothers – to seek help.

María, 32, who has withheld her surname due to addiction stigma, tried to seek hospital treatment late last year. But there was no room in any of the centers that admit women with children. “The idea of ​​going to treatment without my kids never crossed my mind, so I ended up not going,” she says. Leaving them with their father was not an option, due to drug and violence issues, and she had no one else to turn to for help.

“I kept using for another month,” she says. “I could have died.”

Argentina’s network of inpatient drug treatment centers is run by churches, nongovernmental organizations, and other civic organizations, but receives financial and technical support from the Secretaría de Políticas Integrales sobre Drogas de la Nación Argentina (Secretariat Argentinian National Council for a Comprehensive Drug Policy), known by its acronym, SÉDRONAR. According to a 2019 SEDRONAR report, almost 93% of people admitted to these centers are men. Of the 46 residential centers that offer free treatment, only 13 admit women and only six admit women with children.

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Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

María shows the names of her children tattooed on her arm and the scars from injuries she inflicted on herself while under the influence of drugs. She now attends an outpatient clinic in Buenos Aires.

SEDRONAR, which falls under the purview of the chief of staff, declined to comment. The Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity did not respond to requests for comment.

Betina Zubeldía, president of Madres Territoriales Nacional Contra las Drogas (Mothers on the National Ground Against Drugs), a civil society initiative, says she recently helped a woman gain admission to a center in Buenos Aires, more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from his family in Santa Fe, a province in northeastern Argentina. There were no openings in nearby centers.

“Women with children, women – it seems like they have no right to get sick with an addiction,” she says. “We are in a society where we continue to judge women.”

The government hasn’t released any new data on drug use by gender, but psychologist Solange Rodríguez Espínola, who studies drug use, says while drug use has always been higher among men than women women, the gap is narrowing every year. According to a SEDRONAR report, the number of cocaine users in Argentina almost doubled between 2010 and 2017, a greater increase among women than among men.

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Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

María’s 6-year-old daughter plays drums after school at an outpatient clinic in Buenos Aires.

Gloria Pereda, coordinator of Granja Madre Teresa, a free facility for women with children, agrees that more women have started using drugs, attributing this in part to deteriorating domestic conditions. “Violence has increased a lot during the pandemic,” she says. “At least it’s become more visible.” The average number of daily calls to the gender-based violence hotline, for example, increased by more than 20% in the first months of lockdown.

Granja Madre Teresa, located on the western outskirts of the city of Buenos Aires, has six houses – each with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom – in a large garden dotted with play equipment and a garden of children that children from neighboring communities can also visit. Treatment, Pereda says, can take up to two years. Centers for women with children need more facilities, which is why “most of them choose the simplest option, which is to open a place for men”, explains Ailén Dotta, who works in the establishment.

Argentina’s Mental Health Law of 2010 stipulates that at least 10% of the health budget must be allocated to mental health. Currently, this figure is close to 3%. While the government aimed to facilitate an additional 46 residential treatment centers by the end of 2022 – to double the current number – it depends on the private organizations that operate these centers voluntarily registering with the government organization. As a result, the Secretariat cannot guarantee increased capacity or whether the new centers will accommodate men, women or women with children.

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

María prepares snacks at an outpatient facility, where staff look after her 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter while she receives treatment and training.

Rafael Arteaga, who studies drug addiction at the National University of San Martín, says access would improve if the law was followed.

“They should have a mental health and addictions department in every hospital,” he says, pointing to the need for dual-shift child care and public schools so that even women who opt for outpatient therapy have a where to send their children. children.

María, for example, visits an outpatient clinic in Buenos Aires daily. She can bring her children but has to go home in the evening. Outpatient treatment is not a realistic option for many, says Juliana Lualdi, mentor of the ‘Ni un Pibe Menos por la Droga’ (Not one less because of drugs) campaign, especially for those like María, who live in “barrios populares”. Nearly 58% of residents of these informal neighborhoods said drugs were sold in their neighborhood, according to a survey by the Catholic University of Argentina, more than double the number elsewhere.

In some areas, says Lualdi, “it’s easier to get medicine than milk.”

Advocates say access to treatment, for women and men, would also improve if the government streamlined admission procedures. To receive free care, applicants must sift through a mountain of documents — affidavits, medical records, social security documents — and then go through one or more interviews. Once eligibility has been determined and a place has been secured, the secretariat calls to let applicants know that they are eligible for treatment. According to information obtained from the secretariat through a file request, the average waiting time varies from one to four days for men, from four to ten days for women without children and from ten to twelve days for those with children. In María’s experience, however, the process can take months.

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Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Micaela stands outside Granja Madre Teresa, located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where she has been receiving treatment for two months.

“All the formalities that SEDRONAR asks of you – interviews, assessment – ​​make access more difficult,” says Pereda. “They have requirements that are very complicated if you don’t have anyone with you, if you’re on the street or often don’t even have a phone.” One of the hardest parts of the process, in his experience, is making sure people get the phone call from the secretariat advising them of availability.

Mustering the will to seek help is hard enough, says Micaela, 27, a resident of Granja Madre Teresa who also asked to be identified by her first name. “When you don’t find a place that admits you, you stay in the same situation,” she says. “If they don’t help you then, it’s hard to go back. You say, ‘Good. I have already asked for help.

Micaela has two children she cannot see. When she first started treatment, she was 14 years old. “My son went to a children’s home and I went to drug treatment. It was not possible for a mother with a child to be there,” she said. She had been in treatment for four years. Social services waited until she was 19 to determine if she could care for her son. Since she didn’t have enough money or proper housing at the time, they placed her in foster care.

“That’s when I relapsed,” she says. She had her second child at 24; social services then took her away, and she has not had any contact since, she said.

Her dream is for them to be a family and for her story to unfold differently this time.

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