Women who struggle with substance use disorder face barriers to recovery that are unique to their gender. Not only do substances impact women in different ways than men, but access to support sources are often limited due to the roles they fulfill in daily life. Much of the knowledge gained about how substance use impacts the female gender can be attributed to women who’ve played influential roles in the history of addiction. These women strove to develop outreach strategies and recovery treatment protocols that addressed the specific needs of their gender, becoming game-changers for women in recovery.
How Substance Use Disorder Affects Women Differently
While as a culture we embrace the concept of equality in all things, when it comes to how substance use affects women there are some notable differences to acknowledge. These unique characteristics between the sexes are based on their different physiologies as well as societal customs. This means that substances may impact women differently than men, but also that cultural roles may influence who is most likely to reach out for treatment.
According to an article examining the topic, “Women and Substance Use Disorders” [Hecksher and Hess], there is clear epidemiological evidence of variances between genders with regards to the effects of substances on women. Some of the authors’ conclusions reflect the findings that women who do develop a substance use disorder experience a greater severity of the problem that also increases faster than in men. In addition, they note that women have a higher incidence of co-occurring post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health challenges.
More differences between men and women in the history of addiction include:
- The prevalence of a co-occurring mood or anxiety disorder among women with a substance use disorder is 29.7% and 26.2% respectively
- Women with alcohol use disorder experience higher rates of liver disease compared to men
- Women who are victims of domestic violence are at increased risk of substance use
- Substance use effects the brain differently in women
- The higher fat content in women causes the body to metabolize alcohol slower, resulting in a higher blood alcohol content
- Women are more likely to seek treatment for sedative dependency than men
- Women misuse stimulants for weight loss more than men
Obstacles to Seeking Treatment for Women
Women typically fulfill gender-specific roles in society. In particular, it is women who are primarily responsible for the caretaking of children. This creates unique barriers to treatment, as women may deny their need for help due to the daily demands of parenting. Other obstacles unique to women include:
- Women fear losing their children, or being separated from them, if they admit to having a substance use problem
- Women want to avoid a perceived stigma about women with substance use disorder, so attempt to hide the problem from family and friends
- Women experience parenting challenges, such as how to arrange for daycare or transportation of their children to school and back, if they are in treatment
- Financial limitations often prevent women from seeking treatment
- More women depend on a substance to self-medicate a mental health issue
On the flip side, it has been found that women who enroll in a program that addresses the unique needs and differences of women in recovery will respond better to treatment. In addition, when seeking support in female recovery meetings, versus a co-ed group, there is a lower incidence of relapse.
How Impactful Women in Recovery Have Shifted the History of Addiction
Over the history of addiction, women have risen to prominence in the field, providing important new insights and services relative to the needs of their gender. Some of these impactful women in recovery include:
Betty Ford. Betty Ford surprised the world when, as First Lady of the USA, she publicly divulged her personal struggle with substance use. She went on to establish the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, CA in 1982, now Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation with 17 sites across the nation.
Marty Mann. Marty Mann was a founding contributor to Alcoholics Anonymous through the inclusion of her chapter, “Women Suffer Too” in the Big Book of AA. Mann went on to found the National Council on Alcoholism and co-founded the Yale School of Alcohol Studies (now Rutgers).
Jamie Lee Curtis. Now 20 years sober, actress Jamie Lee Curtis shared openly in 1999 about her struggle with opioid use disorder, hoping that her transparency would inspire others to seek treatment. Her efforts included authoring many articles about addiction recovery, as well as giving multiple interviews on the subject.
Thanks to these women and others, huge strides have occurred for women in the field of addiction recovery. Their efforts have helped pave the way for women to enter treatment, and to also receive specialized care based on their unique needs once engaged in the addiction treatment and recovery process.
Ashley Addiction Treatment believes that connection is vital to a successful recovery, with treatment options focused on holistic, integrated, and compassionate care. Ashley utilizes a variety of treatment modalities to support the healing process. If you would like to speak to someone about our care options, please reach out to us today at 800-799-4673.