One of the biggest myths surrounding drug abuse is that men get addicted more often than women. While that may have been true in the past, it’s no longer the case. That gap is narrowing, and it’s now estimated that about 4.5. million women struggle with a substance abuse disorder (SUD).
Women who are struggling with addiction face some unique challenges compared to their male counterparts. Issues related to pregnancy and postpartum depression may impact women in active addiction.
Sometimes addicted women also have experienced sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other traumas that may impact both their development of an addiction and their process of recovery. Because these factors tend to be more unique to women, finding effective ways to treat women in active addiction is often different than methods that might work for men.
Challenges Often Unique to Women with Addiction
Pregnancy and Addiction
Pregnancy is unique to women who are dealing with addiction. This can also be a very loaded circumstance for women who are also addicted to substances. For example, the use of drugs and alcohol tends to impair judgment or can lead to situations that might result in unintended pregnancy.
Women who are addicted and pregnant may not be in a position to seek medical care for various reasons, including financial instability. Plus, the fetus may be jeopardized if a woman tries to quit substances, particularly alcohol, cold turkey. Finally, infants born to mothers who are addicted often suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and other health complications.
Physical And Sexual Violence
Rates of women in active addiction who seek treatment who have also experienced physical and sexual abuse are often as high as 55 percent to 99 percent. There tends to be an insidious relationship between abuse and addiction among women. Often the abuse starts early in childhood. Domestic violence is also prevalent among women seeking SUD treatment.
Chronic Pain And Higher Rates Of Opioid Prescriptions
Studies show that rates of prescriptions for opioids and other pain relievers are much higher for women than men. Women are diagnosed with chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis more frequently than men. Opioid pain relievers have a high rate of abuse and addiction. Not surprisingly, since they are prescribed more often to women, the rates of opioid addiction are higher among women.
The Menstrual Cycle And Addiction
Researchers have found a connection between the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle and difficulty with addiction treatment. This is the phase of the menstrual cycle when ovulation occurs. Because of this, it’s recommended that women begin withdrawal treatment during the follicular stage instead. Estrogen levels are higher during the follicular phase, and this seems to help alleviate feelings of anxiety and lead to an overall better success rate.
Several kinds of co-occurring disorders appear frequently in women who are struggling with addiction.
Studies have shown that the rates of co-occurring mood and anxiety disorders are higher among women. It’s not clear why these rates are higher, but it does indicate that there may be a greater need for managing other health conditions during addiction treatment for women.
Women are more likely to be diagnosed with eating disorders than men. In fact, eating disorders are two to three times higher in women than men and eating disorders have been found to co-occur in substance abuse in about 40 percent of women.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another co-occurring disorder commonly seen in women who have a substance abuse disorder. This is because so many of these women have also suffered as a result of physical and sexual abuse.
Women often experience greater social stigma around addiction. As a result, some women, particularly women who are also mothers, may not seek help for addiction treatment.
Child Care And Financial Limitations
Income limitations and the need to care for children may impact a woman’s ability to get treatment.
Effective Ways to Treat Women in Active Addiction
In the not-too-distant past, addiction research focused primarily on men. The thinking was that similar factors would apply to women. It turns out that this isn’t necessarily the case.
In the past decade, researchers have begun paying a lot more attention to women and addiction, and they have realized there are quite a few differences in not only how addiction affects men and women, but also in the efficacy of addiction treatment services. What works for men doesn’t necessarily work for women. Health care professionals now realize certain gender differences need to be considered both when evaluating and treating women for substance use disorder (SUD).
A few key considerations to help provide effective treatment to women with an addiction are:
Child Care Resources
The majority of women who enter addiction treatment are also mothers. Because women often carry the primary
responsibility for childcare and many women are single mothers, incorporating childcare or resources for childcare into an addiction treatment program can improve the odds of women not only participating in the program but also being successful at maintaining their recovery.
As with childcare, women typically are burdened with the bulk of home care and other family responsibilities, such as caretaking for other relatives. Again, if resources are in place to help women meet these needs while they are undergoing treatment, a great burden can be lifted allowing them to participate fully in treatment and have improved odds for successful recovery.
Gender-Specific Treatment Programs
Because many women seeking treatment for addiction have also suffered physical and sexual violence, gender-specific treatment programs can provide a safe space for women to come together and therapeutically work through these specific emotional and psychological traumas.
Treatment For Co-Occurring Disorders
Given the research showing that many women in treatment are often also dealing with additional health conditions, programs that are designed to manage co-occurring conditions can be more effective at treating women with SUDs.
Addressing Concerns About Weight Gain
Because of cultural pressures on appearance, women often struggle with body image concerns in addition to addiction and other health conditions. Women who are trying to quit smoking will sometimes become frustrated or concerned about quitting because of weight gain. It can be advantageous to help female patients with these concerns see how the benefits of quitting will outweigh potential weight gain.
Meanwhile, incorporating other healthy behaviors, such as cutting down on sugar and processed foods and encouraging exercise, can also help to keep weight gain at bay as well as boost energy and mood.
Parenting Classes And Job Training
Parenting can be stressful. Learning effective parenting techniques can help women not only be better parents but also manage their stress levels and help to avoid relapse as a result. Job training expands opportunities for women to find gainful employment and provide for themselves and their children.
Behavioral Couples Therapy
Often, women who are dealing with SUDs may also be dealing with difficult domestic relationships, or the addiction may be a cause of strain in a relationship. Behavioral couples therapy can provide an important opportunity for women in treatment for SUDs and their partners to learn valuable communication skills and perhaps heal old traumas to help pave the way for a more successful recovery and stronger, healthier relationship moving forward.
There are key gender-specific differences that influence the reasons women become addicted to substances and how addiction affects them. It’s important that health care practitioners are aware of these differences and consider them when treating female patients.
Effective addiction treatment for women must take into account social and environmental factors that are often specific to women, including childcare, physical and sexual abuse, and societal pressures and stigmas around body image and motherhood.