27 September 2022
Name: Julia Sheehan
Location: London, United Kingdom
Job title: National Women’s Criminal Justice Manager at The Hepatitis C Trust.
We spoke with Julia Sheehan after World Hepatitis Day 2022, one of The Hepatitis C Trust’s busiest times of the year, with prisons and the community across the UK getting involved and keeping HCV firmly on the agenda.
We spoke about the importance of peer workers (almost all staff at the Hepatitis C Trust have lived experience), why we should treat people who use drugs as individuals, and how being an INHSU member opens up the chance to connect with global peers.
Tell us a bit about your background and what you do.
Since 2018, I have been working with women in custody settings across the 12 female prison establishments in England. I work for a charitable organisation, The Hepatitis C Trust and we are unique in that most of our staff have been effected or affected by hepatitis C.
We recruit an army of volunteer peers with lived experience who are at the core of everything we do. That’s because we know that when people share a common experience or hardship, a connection happens and they feel less isolated and alone.
I have lived experience of both hepatitis C and prison and it is important to me that women in prison are supported. I try and deliver what I felt I needed when I was in prison living with HCV. This ultimately starts with tackling the stigma which is so often attached to it.
We do this with education and conversation, allowing women to feel safe and supported enough to accept a test, followed by pathways to treatment that are simple and short. The landscape has changed so much with the new DAA treatments and point-of-care testing that enables us the exciting opportunity to eliminate this infectious disease.
What is the most important issue facing people who use drugs in the UK currently and what can be done to help?
The stigmatisation of people who use drugs often leave them feeling undeserved, unimportant and on the periphery of society. This is exacerbated by cuts in funding for drug treatment services and lack of housing. People get trapped in a cycle of drug use, homelessness and prison. We need more focus on treatment and safe housing giving people an opportunity to recover from drug addiction.
Dame Carol Black’s review on drugs (Dame Carol is speaking at INHSU 2022 conference), which focused on drug prevention, treatment and recovery was a step in the right direction. The government’s pledge of the largest increase in drug treatment funding for 15 years is also very hopeful. This will include funding for drug-free wings in prisons for people who want to be in a recovery community.
What is the one thing you’ve come across in your career that you think everyone should know if they work with people who use drugs?
You may wonder why someone wouldn’t jump at the chance to access a cure for their hepatitis C infection? Well, it’s important to understand that active addiction can be all-consuming and difficult to control, despite the harmful consequences. In my experience, compliance appointments etc for people who have little or no control over their life are unlikely to be helpful.
We should be flexible and understand that some people may need more support than others. Behind every person who uses drugs, there is a story. Patience, understanding and kindness is key. People always remember kindness.
What is the best thing about being an INHSU member?
I am always open to new ways of working and looking for faster pathways to treatment and being an INHSU member connects me on a global scale and gives me the opportunity to see best practise shared from around the world that I wouldn’t usually get to see.
This is inspiring and helps me to feel part of a bigger picture. So many different people, from different backgrounds and professions all working towards one goal – elimination.