The fact that men and women experience addiction differently is not new, but it’s only beginning to become a part of the public consciousness. A report released in 2016 noted that the global health community could do better in offering gender-specific addiction treatment programs, more comprehensive initiatives for drug-dependent women, and providing more funding for the prevention of substance abuse in women. There’s a simple reason for this recommendation: women are often overlooked in the sphere of addiction, and they require specifically tailored programs for their recovery.
Addiction affects women in different ways than men, for several reasons. First, research shows that women who abuse substances like heroin and cocaine tend to increase their rate of consumption quicker than men. This leads to a shortened timeline for developing a substance use disorder. There’s another disparate statistic: though women make up one-third of global drug users, they only comprise 20% of people receiving treatment for substance abuse – which means they face systemic problems in accessing quality treatment.
A review of the addiction literature shows fundamental differences between how men and women experience addiction. For example, an adolescent male drinker most commonly experiences a decreased attention span, while an adolescent female is more likely to experience a decrease in spatial reasoning skills.
Women who are susceptible to drug or alcohol abuse are also more likely to experience other co-occurring mental health disorders. Like an addiction, these disorders take control over a woman’s autonomy. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia, self-harm, suicide, anxiety, and depression are common examples. Additionally, the presence of childhood trauma, particularly sexual abuse, predisposes women to develop a substance abuse disorder.
Even different substances may affect women differently than men. Some of the most notable differences address opioid addiction, alcohol addiction, and dependence on benzodiazepines.
Opioid addiction continues to increase at a concerning rate for both men and women across the United States. Although women experience less mortality with regard to opioid overdose than men, heroin and opioid use among women still presents a major problem. Between 1999 and 2015, prescription opioid-related deaths increased 471% among women. Comparatively, men only experienced a 218% increase. Heroin deaths also jumped at a two-fold increase compared to men. Synthetic opioids pose the greatest risk, as death among women related to these drugs jumped 850% between 1999 and 2015. In short, we are losing women’s lives to opioid addiction at an exponentially faster rate than men, yet many states do not have appropriate interventions in place to save them.
While we know that addiction appears to progress more quickly in women than in men, we still don’t fully understand why these differences occur. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights some reasons why women and men experience opioid addiction differently. For example, women are more likely to complain of chronic pain and are more likely to use prescription opioids at higher doses, for a longer period of time. There is also some evidence that women may experience more cravings than men.
Women experience special barriers for accessing quality treatment options. Women are more likely to be caregivers in a household, and may face barriers to treatment like lack of child care. Women also have more complex recovery needs – evidence suggests that women who enter treatment for substance use disorders present with medical, social, and behavioral problems that are more severe than men.
Another problem with substance abuse treatment is that women are more likely to fear the consequences of getting help. In many states, women with children can be reported to CPS for admitting to using illicit drugs, which may result in losing custody of their children. Since seeking help can lead to criminal justice, many women choose to suffer in silence. Removing these barriers would significantly improve the rate at which women seek treatment for substance use disorders.
Alcoholism among women is also increasing, particularly among white women. According to a recent analysis by the Washington Post, binge drinking among women has increased 40% since 1997, and more than a quarter of women admit to drinking multiple times a week. More than a million women wound up in the nation’s emergency departments for conditions related to heavy drinking in 2013, and middle-aged women are the most likely to report with severe intoxication.
In part, this is due to a cultural normalization of drinking. On social media, there are countless videos in which women recount the exhaustion of motherhood while consuming a bottle of wine. This normalization has also lead to an increase in mortality, particularly among middle-aged women. The rate of death among women aged 35-54 related to alcohol has doubled since 1999.
Alcoholism is on the rise among women, not only because it has become more culturally normalized, but because substance abuse disorders progress more quickly in women than they do in men. While there are plenty of viable treatment options for women who struggle with an alcohol-use disorder, women face more natural obstacles that prevent them from seeking help. Notably, women struggle to fit alcohol treatment into their already overloaded schedule.
One of the biggest reasons that alcoholism in women is growing is because of social norms – and we can’t talk about social norms without mentioning social media. If you look on social media, you will see how alcohol is much more prevalent in women’s lives today than ever before.
Alcohol causes many emotional and mental health issues in both men and women. Women, by nature, are more in-touch with their emotions, and their emotions play a much larger role in decision making and choices than men. Since alcohol causes wide variations in emotions, alcohol is more likely to cause women to make bad emotionally-based decisions.
There is some evidence that group therapy tends to benefit women more, as it allows them an opportunity to see that they’re not alone. However, because of the stigma involved with residential treatment, women are more likely to elect individual therapy and outpatient recovery options. Alcoholism in women requires a unique approach that respects a woman’s busy schedule and need for community.
Benzodiazepines are psychoactive drugs that a physician may prescribe to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia, or panic disorders. Although they can be effective, they are also addictive. Unfortunately, panic and anxiety disorders are more common in women than in men, so they receive a disproportionate number of benzodiazepine prescriptions. They’re also more vulnerable to a subsequent benzodiazepine-use disorder.
The most likely people to have a benzo prescription are women, and the number increases with age. Women between the ages of 65 to 80 are the most likely to have a benzodiazepine prescription. Overdose deaths due to benzos are increasing at an alarming rate – in fact, they’ve quadrupled since 1999 and are still rising.
Women will benefit from targeted treatments for the quicker progression of their substance use disorder. Since benzodiazepine addictions often stem from co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety and panic disorders, addressing these conditions without the use of addictive medications is essential for a long-lasting recovery.
Addiction among women is a growing problem across several substances, particularly opioids, alcohol, and benzodiazepines. Since addiction affects women in fundamentally different ways than men, they require a targeted and highly personalized approach to recovery. Harmony Place utilizes a variety of evidence-based and complementary techniques to design targeted interventions that help women recover from a variety of substance abuse disorders. From group therapy to individual counseling, Harmony Place creates addiction treatment plans that are unique to every individual, and we can offer a comprehensive addiction treatment plan that is tailored to the unique needs of women.
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