Addiction Treatment for Women
Women are about half as likely as men to abuse and suffer from dependence on illicit drugs or alcohol. Reports say that around 7% of women suffer from substance addiction, while the rates for men are closer to 14%.1However, this gender gap seems to be narrowing in the U.S., especially for alcohol abuse.2 When it comes to the type of substance, women and men abuse these substances at similar rates, with the only exception of alcohol, which is still being more abused by men.1
Traditionally, substance abuse research and treatment programs have been designed with men in mind, as more men than women typically enter treatment centers.3 However, the figures seem to be changing, with 4.5 million women battling addiction in the United States. Furthermore, 3.5 million misuse prescription drugs and just over 3 million women abuse illicit drugs on a regular basis.4
Differences in substance abuse between men and women are relevant because they can impact addiction treatment needs. Women may use and respond to drugs differently than men and may also face some unique barriers to treatment.5 Keeping this in mind, treatment facilities offer specialized gender-sensitive women’s addiction treatment as well as treatment programs adjusted to the needs of men. Moreover, as age can also play a role in the patterns of substance abuse and its treatment, there are also treatment programs specially designed for teens.
Gender Differences and Substance Abuse
Both biological differences in the sexes and sociocultural expectations that define gender can play a role in why a person may turn to substance abuse and even potentially be more prone to addiction.6
Women seem to start using drugs for different reasons than men. According to theNational Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), women most commonly give the following reasons for drug abuse:5
- Self-medication for mental health concerns
- Weight control
- Combating fatigue
Trauma & Substance Abuse in Women
Some mental health issues may result from traumatic experiences. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one out of every three women has suffered physical violence at the hands of a partner, which increases the odds that they will face mental health issues and resort to drugs and/or alcohol to find relief.18
NIDA reports that among people who seek treatment, the number of women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of physical or sexual trauma is higher than the number of men.7
In addition, the cultural expectations of women as wives and mothers can raise stress levels and present further issues that are unique to this gender. Due to these expectations and their role, women may hide their addiction and substance abuse from their families and loved ones. They may also be less likely to seek treatment, which makes the addiction issue even worse over time.8
Sex Differences and Substance Abuse
There are certain hormonal influences and differences in how drugs affect brain chemistry that are unique to women.
The Rate at Which Substances Are Metabolized
Women metabolize drugs and alcohol at different rates than men. A woman will develop a dependence on alcohol more quickly than a man due to several factors. Men often weigh more than women and women have lower levels of two important enzymes that are involved in breaking down alcohol, resulting in more alcohol in their bloodstream.5 The drug-induced changes in brain chemistry may occur faster, leading more quickly to drug dependence, which can then progress to compulsive drug use and addiction.10
It has been established that women may be vulnerable to abusing drugs as a result of problems with hormones, menstrual cycle, fertility, and menopause. For example, researchers found that the greatest responsivity to stimulants occurs during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, in which estradiol levels are high and progesterone low.11
Women may also be more sensitive to pain sensations, which can make drugs seem like an effective method for self-medication. Women are generally more likely to be prescribed pain medicine than men are, and in recent years there has been a notable increase in prescription drug abuse among women in the U.S.12
When it comes to mental health, females are more likely to exhibit the symptoms of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, which can make them more susceptible to abusing drugs as a way to cope.6
How Does Women’s Addiction Treatment work?
Like any type of addiction treatment, addiction treatment for women comprises several elements:13
- Detoxification, to eliminate harmful substances from the body; medications are used to help the person overcome withdrawal where necessary.
- Behavioral counseling, to change the patterns of thinking and behavior that have led to addiction and develop healthy life habits. This can be in the form of individual sessions or group sessions, as well as family therapy.
- Evaluation and treatment of co-occurring mental health conditions, to make sure that these disorders do not cause the need for substance abuse (examples are depression, anxiety, or eating disorders).
- Long-term follow-up plan, to prevent relapse.
The key difference between addiction treatment for women and standard addiction treatments is that the former provides a gender-sensitive environment and pays attention to women-specific issues that are related to substance use.
What Are the Benefits of Women-Specific Addiction Treatment?
The research that compares the effects of gender-specific and standard substance abuse treatment is still ongoing and it is still early to talk about long-term results.1 Nevertheless, there are for sure several important advantages of gender-sensitive addiction treatment for women. The most commonly listed are the following ones:14
- Some women prefer treatment options that are provided by women.
- Women’s addiction treatment programs provide more space to focus on gender-specific content.
- Such environments can provide more comfort and support, which may be relevant to women who have experienced trauma.
- Some women benefit from some adjunctive services provided by women’s addiction treatment centers; for example, inpatient services that allow for the presence of children or special services that cater to the needs of pregnant women.
These factors are relevant for creating an addiction treatment environment where women would feel safe and supported, so they would be more likely to seek help for overcoming their addiction.
What Are the Barriers to Addiction Treatment for Women?
Research says that women are less likely than men to obtain any treatment for substance use disorders.14Even when they acknowledge that they have a substance issue, there are some potential barriers to treatment that may be unique to women. The most commonly listed are the following ones:15
- Financial reasons. Women are more likely to experience economic barriers to treatment, which probably results from a lack of financial independence.
- Time commitment. For many women, it may be difficult to find time to attend treatment sessions because of family responsibilities.
- Need for additional services. Some women may also need additional services such as housing, transportation, and income support.
- Social stigma. Women may feel shame or embarrassment because they are seeking substance abuse treatment. Sometimes they do not have support from their families and/or partners.
- Treatment for co-occurring disorders. In cases when substance abuse co-occurs with psychological disorders such as anxiety or depression, women may seek help only for those issues and not for substance abuse problems.
Legal issues. Some women may fear losing custody of their children and are therefore less likely to report that they have addiction issues, especially with illegal substances.
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Frequently Asked Questions
- It has been established that family and partner relationships can play a key role in developing an addiction. Likewise, targeting problematic issues in these relationships can be vital to overcoming addiction.16For this reason, strategies in addiction treatment for womenput a lot of emphasis on the families of women with addiction-related issues. In addition to the standard treatment procedures such as detoxification and individual or group behavioral therapy, family therapy approaches may target some spousal and familial dynamics that lead to substance abuse.
- Although every person is unique, there are certain factors that put women at an increased risk of developing substance addiction:8
- History of trauma (physical, sexual, psychological)
- Family environment (substance users in the family or unhealthy partner relationships)
- Issues surrounding sexual orientation
- Mental health disorders (anxiety and depression in particular)
- Women who abuse substances are more likely than other women to have co-occurring disorders, the most common being the following ones:10
- Agoraphobia with or without panic attacks
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
A mental disorder and substance abuse can become even worse when they occur together.17 The symptoms of mental disorders become even more serious when a person uses alcohol or drugs to find relief. On the other hand, if psychological issues are not treated, substance abuse can intensify. An important aspect of effective addiction treatment for women is to address both substance addiction and co-occurring disorders.
- There are certain differences in how men and women are affected by addiction:6, 11
- With certain types of addiction, such as nicotine, women can have more intense cravings and experience more stress when trying to quit.
- Women may be more likely to relapse after treatment.
- Sex hormones can make women more sensitive than men to the effects of some drugs.
- Women may experience more physical effects on their hearts and blood vessels because of substance abuse.
- There is more likelihood that women will go to the emergency room or die from overdose or other effects of certain substances.
- When women enter substance abuse treatment their clinical profile is typically more severe compared to men, despite having used less of the substance and having used the substance for a shorter period of time.
- Pregnancy can additionally complicate the situation for women who are struggling with addiction. As pregnancy is a particularly sensitive condition, where the mother and the baby can be severely affected by both substance abuse and abstinence, seeking professional help is necessary. Not all women’s addiction treatment institutions can provide all the necessary care but there are special treatment programs adjusted to pregnant women that can cater to their needs and help them improve their health and birth outcomes.
2. White, M. A. (2020). Gender Differences in the Epidemiology of Alcohol Use and Related Harms in the United States. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 40(2).
3. Quinby, P. M. & Graham A. (1993). Substance abuse among women. Primary Care, 20(1), 131–40.
4. Sack, D. (2017). 6 Myths About Women and Addiction. Psychology Today.
5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Substance Use in Women.
6. Becker, J. B., McClellan, M. L., & Reed, B. G. (2017). Sex differences, gender and addiction. Journal of neuroscience research, 95(1-2), 136-147.
7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). What are the unique needs of women with substance use disorders?
8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. (2013). Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women
9. Harvard Health (2010). Addiction in women.
10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use.
11. Greenfield, S. F., Back, S. E., Lawson, K., & Brady, K. T. (2010). Substance abuse in women. The Psychiatric clinics of North America, 33(2), 339-355.
12. Office on Women’s Health. (2018). Alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, and addiction.
13. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
14. Greenfield S. F., GrellaC. E. (2009).Alcohol & Drug Abuse: What Is “Women-Focused” Treatment for Substance Use Disorders?Psychiatry online.
15. Green, C. (2006). Gender and Use of Substance Abuse Treatment Services. Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 29(1), 55-62.
16. Abasi, I., & Mohammadkhani, P. (2016). Family Risk Factors Among Women With Addiction-Related Problems: An Integrative Review. International journal of high risk behaviors & addiction, 5(2).
18. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Statistics.