Gender Specific Challenges in Addiction Treatment

women's addiction treatment gender specific
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Women’s Addiction Treatment

Nearly 20 million women in the United States over age 18 have used an illicit substance in the last year, including marijuana and abusive prescription drugs. Women are also using alcohol at higher rates than ever before, including heavy drinking and binge drinking. This presents gender specific challenges for treatment programs, involving separate specialties for women’s addiction treatment centers.

But addiction can present unique challenges in women based on their biology and different gender roles within society. Unfortunately, due to a lack of addiction research including women and other factors, addiction treatment centers may not be prepared to handle these challenges and help women achieve long-term abstinence.

If you or a loved one is experiencing addiction, it’s vital to understand how the process is different in women—and what you can do to find effective treatment, with or without a women’s addiction treatment center. 

Reasons for Substance Abuse in Women

While mental health conditions play a large role in addiction for both men and women, women may start abusing substances for different reasons than men. Common reasons for substance abuse include trying to:

  • Control weight
  • Cope with pain (women are more likely to experience chronic pain than men)
  • Improve energy
  • Handle stress
  • Self-treat mental illness

Certain women are more at risk for substance abuse than others. Women who are the victims of domestic violence, have experienced a divorce or loss of a spouse or loss of a child are more likely to abuse substances.

Complications of Addiction in Women

Because of differences in body size, body fat percentages, and hormones, women’s bodies react differently to drugs and alcohol than men’s. For instance, women may become addicted after using smaller amounts of substances for a shorter time. They may also have more cravings and stronger withdrawal symptoms that increase the risk of a relapse.

This increased sensitivity to effects of drugs can lead to more serious physical complications of drug use. Women may be more likely to:

  • Suffer permanent heart and blood vessel damage due to drug use
  • Suffer permanent liver damage due to alcohol use
  • Experience brain damage related to alcohol or drug use
  • Experience a stroke or heart attack related to drug use
  • Increased risk of cancer, including breast cancer, due alcohol use
  • Become the victim of sexual assault
  • Die from overdoses
  • Experience anxiety and depression related to drug use

Women also face a unique set of complications if they become pregnant while abusing drugs or alcohol. Drug use can have serious harmful effects on a fetus, causing premature birth, low birth weight and developmental delays. It also increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Pregnant women who use drugs and alcohol may also experience seizures, migraines and dangerously high blood pressure.

The rate of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome has been on the rise due to the opioid epidemic. These infants are experiencing the same symptoms of withdrawal that an adult would experience while detoxing. They may have symptoms such as:

  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Faster heart rate
  • Irritability and extreme crying
  • Rapid breathing
  • Trouble feeding and sleeping
  • Slow weight gain

Neonatal abstinence syndrome may appear any time within two weeks of a child’s birth and may last several weeks.

Obstacles to Treatment in Women

While complications of addiction may be caused by a women’s physical characteristics, obstacles to treatment may be more rooted in gender roles. Women may be less likely to seek out treatment for addiction than men for several reasons:

  • Fear of losing custody of their children
  • Having no childcare options during treatment
  • Fears of legal consequences or societal judgment during pregnancy
  • Lack of health insurance or financial resources for treatment
  • Fear that people will think less of them if they admit they have a problem

These obstacles mean that women tend to seek help later, leading to a longer progression of the addiction. In order to treat women successfully, addiction treatment centers must offer programs and strategies that address these obstacles and other challenges women face.

Women’s Addiction Treatment Strategies

Like men, it’s vital that women find a treatment center that offers reliable, evidence-based treatment. This treatment should include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication-assisted treatment (when applicable). Other types of therapy may also be helpful, including group therapy and family therapy. Alternative treatments, such as yoga and meditation, can also help women learn to handle stress in more healthy ways.

But women are also more likely to need other forms of support, such as childcare options or the ability to receive treatment on a more flexible, outpatient schedule. They may also need supportive therapies for underlying medical conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Pregnant women also benefit from an addiction treatment program that offers prenatal care or works closely with their obstetric providers. This is a population that is well under-served. These women would benefit from more intensive prenatal care, including more frequent monitoring and therapies that teach coping skills and stress management techniques. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) must also be considered if the mother is heavily addicted to opioids. MAT could prevent or improve neonatal abstinence syndrome in babies once the child is born. A safe space for labor and delivery is also crucial. May times, women are fearful of high medical bills or legal implications that delivering at a hospital may create.

At Harmony Place in Woodland Hills, California, we provide a relaxing, comfortable environment for addiction treatment and recovery with many addiction treatment program options. Contact us today at 1-(888)-789-4330 to learn more about our services and how you or your loved one can prepare for a successful rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addiction at our California treatment center to maintain sobriety.

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