The act of using alcohol and drugs has no gender, and the reason for doing so doesn’t either. Still, in recent years, women continue to show they are the fastest-growing group of people to use addictive substances, especially alcohol.
As a result, women who struggle with substance use disorders face greater health risks and consequences than men. Some will make their way to an addiction treatment program to address their issues and work through them, but figures suggest that many do not.
Only 1 in 5 of individuals in drug treatment programs are women, according to data the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) cites.
There are a few reasons that may explain why so few women enter treatment programs for substance dependence.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that women who face substance use challenges are more likely to encounter multiple obstacles in accessing treatment.
One of these barriers is finding childcare, as more than 70 percent of women who enter treatment are mothers, according to the National Recovery Institute.
“Women entering treatment are more likely to have primary responsibility for their children, whereas the majority of fathers entering addiction treatment have another primary caretaker (e.g., mother) available,” the institute writes.
NIAAA also reports that women are more likely to enter treatment in mental health and primary care environments than treatment programs that specialize in addiction.
Women also historically face more hurdles when it comes to stigmas concerning substance use struggles. These negative reactions can make women feel shame, guilt, or even selfish, for wanting to focus on recovery, especially if they are mothers with young children. These harsh perceptions keep many away from seeking out programs that can help them.
NCDAS also cites statistics that say in 2018, 32.1 million U.S. women had a mental or substance use disorder. According to its report, among those women:
With figures this high, it is clear that not enough women are receiving the treatment services they need.
According to U.S. News & World Report, which writes that alcohol use is increasingly becoming a women’s health issue, researchers and medical specialists report seeing an increase in the number of women who have alcohol-related liver conditions, some of them fatal.
The report cites the NIAAA, which reports that alcohol death rates increased more for women (85%) than men (35%) in one study.
“Alcohol is a growing women’s health issue,” said NIAAA Director Dr. George F. Koob in a news release the organization released in early 2020. “The rapid increase in deaths involving alcohol among women is troubling and parallels the increases in alcohol consumption among women over the past few decades.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an increase in women dying from overdoses involving prescription pain reliever medications. According to its data it cites,18 women die daily from prescription pain reliever overdose in the US. It writes:
“Deaths from prescription painkiller overdose among women have risen more sharply than among men; since 1999 the percentage increase in deaths was more than 400% among women compared to 265% in men. This rise relates closely to increased prescribing of these drugs during the past decade.”
Further, the CDC warns that prescription painkiller overdoses are an under-recognized and growing problem for women.
Substance use in women varies widely from substance use in men in many ways. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), women’s physiology and biology are significant reasons why they experience substance use and addiction differently from men.
Women’s natural functions, such as their menstrual cycles, hormones, and more, make them more sensitive to the effects of addictive substances. They also experience stronger cravings, possibly because substance use also affects their brains differently.
Women are also more likely to develop substance dependencies and progress to addictions faster than men and with fewer drugs because of their physiological and biological differences.
Their reasons for using substances also differ from men’s. Women use substances to self-medicate to manage mood disorders, including depression. They might have an eating disorder that affects their self-esteem and self-image, or they might use prescription medications to manage pain, as women are more sensitive to chronic pain.
While women are also twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a distressing event, they are less likely to seek mental health treatment for it, according to the American Psychological Association. PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia, can last for years, and some women will use substances to address them.
All of the factors mentioned previously affect how women experience substance use disorders and why. These same factors explain why the treatment they receive for mental health and substance use disorders must differ from treatment for men.
Finding an accredited facility that offers quality, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders is the main goal for anyone who wants to recover from them. Some women, however, may want to enroll in programs that specialize in treatment approaches designed specifically for women’s recovery.
Traditional programs for substance abuse treatment were developed mainly with men in mind, so some programs will not be a good fit for women.
Programs that take women’s unique needs into consideration and incorporate them into therapies and services can help them:
Some women have experienced trauma involving males, which could mean they would be more comfortable in an environment where only women are present. Others may feel that programs designed for them can be more beneficial for them because they understand the challenges women face when it comes to health matters and issues like childcare.
“Due to the high number of women with a history of sexual abuse or body image issues, gender-specific options such as housing, peer support groups, or same-sex provider and care teams may help facilitate a safe environment for the patient to focus on treatment and recovery,” the National Recovery Institute writes.
If you or someone you care about is ready to enter treatment that acknowledges the unique challenges women face in addiction recovery, Pathway to Hope can help.
We offer personalized addiction treatment here with our partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs. Our alumni program is also active and keeps people connected with others of like mind and goals, which is to live substance-free.
We understand what recovering from addiction takes. Give us a call today to learn more about our programs and services. We want to hear from you so that we can help you start a new and important chapter in your life.
Substance Abuse and Addiction Statistics . (2020, May 07). from https://drugabusestatistics.org/
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). NIAAA Publications. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh291/55-62.htm
Women In Recovery. Recovery Research Institute. from https://www.recoveryanswers.org/resource/women-in-recovery/
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2009. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK83257/
Newman, Katelyn. “Drinking Like Men Is Killing Women.” U.S. News & World Report. from https://www.usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities/articles/2020-03-02/alcohol-is-increasingly-a-womens-health-issue
NIAAA. “Alcohol-Related Deaths Increasing in the United States.” (n.d.). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/alcohol-related-deaths-increasing-united-states
(September 2018) Prescription Painkiller Overdoses. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/prescriptionpainkilleroverdoses/index.html
(January 2020). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Abuse. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-women
"Trauma." American Psychological Association. from https://www.apa.org/advocacy/interpersonal-violence/women-trauma