Women and Substance Use
Historically, a disproportionate number of substance use disorder studies focused on men. Perhaps for reasons such as this, some people might assume that drug addiction is more of a problem in men than in women. But substance use disorders are prevalent in both women and men, and any gaps in the percentages may be closing. Further, while men in the United States continue to report higher rates of illicit (illegal) drug use (12.5% of men versus 7.9% of women according to 2015 national survey estimates), millions of women suffer from the negative consequences of substance abuse and addiction—which, in some instances, can be more damaging than those commonly experienced by men.1
Some facts about women and substance abuse you may not know are:2,3
- Every 3 minutes, a woman goes to the emergency room after abusing prescription painkillers.
- Approximately 19.5 million adult women reported using illicit drugs in the past year.
- According to the TEDS report in 2019 (TEDS is a census of all admissions to treatment facilities reported by state substance abuse agencies), women entered substance abuse treatment for the following primary substances of abuse:
- Alcohol (14.8%)
- Heroin (23.2%)
- Other opioids (8.7%)
- Marijuana (9.6%)
- Cocaine (6.2%)
- Methamphetamine/amphetamines (14.7%)
- Other substances (10.1%)
Signs and Symptoms of Substance Misuse in Women
Substance use can present itself differently in women than it does in men. While women may on average have a shorter history of alcohol and drug misuse than men, they often enter addiction treatment with a more severe clinical profile—meaning they experience more significant substance-related physical, emotional, behavioral, and social problems than men. This is commonly the case even when men have misused the substance in question for longer and in greater amounts.2,4
Women are also more likely than men to suffer from co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. What’s more, many women begin using drugs in an attempt to self-medicate the symptoms of these disorders.4,5
Issues that women may be more likely than men to display or experience include:2,4,5
- Panic attacks.
- Trauma symptoms (flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, hyper arousal, and trauma avoidance).
- Differences in drug effects due to fluctuations in hormones during menstrual cycle.
- Hoarding unused medications to use later.
- Combining drugs to increase effectiveness.
Consequences of Substance Misuse in Women
While both men and women face negative consequences of substance misuse—such as social problems, financial issues, associated mental and behavioral health issues, malnutrition, as well as increased risks for hepatitis, HIV, and other bloodborne illnesses with some types of use—there are many adverse effects of drug addiction that are unique to women, including:1,2,4
- Physical consequences: Women who misuse drugs are more likely than men to experience adverse physical effects on their heart and blood vessels. Women also are at higher risk for assault and are more likely to overdose.
- Financial and legal problems: Women with drug and alcohol addiction may be more likely to face certain financial and legal problems. They may have difficulties financing addiction treatment or maintaining household expenses, such as rent or mortgage, food, utilities, and childcare. They may also have legal issues surrounding child custody or face issues with child protective services as a result of their substance use.
- Pregnancy: Women who misuse drugs or alcohol may face unplanned pregnancies as a result of poor safe sex practices while under the influence. Substance abuse during pregnancy can pose many complications and negative outcomes for both the mother and the developing baby.
- Barriers to treatment: Some studies have suggested that women may be relatively less likely to seek treatment for substance use disorders than men. This may be due to the many gender-specific treatment barriers that they face, including:
- Social stigmas.
- Childcare responsibilities.
- Financial difficulties.
- Transportation issues.
- Lack of interpersonal or familial support.
Specialized Detox and Rehab Programs for Women
Research has shown that women-only treatment programs can result in higher satisfaction ratings and lower instances of relapse than traditional addiction treatment programs.4 Some treatment options unique to women include:2,4,5
- Onsite childcare.
- Parenting classes.
- Supportive therapies specific to mothers; victims of rape, prostitution, or domestic violence; women with eating disorders; and other mental health conditions.
- Care for pregnant or lactating women.
- Vocational training.
- Income support.
- Housing assistance.
- Social services.
- Family and couples therapy.
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Treatment Offered at Womens Only Programs
A variety of addiction treatment options exist for women struggling with substance abuse, including:
- Detox: Professional detox centers can help women safely withdraw from substances and reduce the risk of relapse and complications due to withdrawal.
- Inpatient Rehab: Women with severe addictions may choose to enter inpatient rehab and reside in the rehab center full-time. It can last anywhere from 30 days to a year or more depending on the severity of addiction and the person’s ability to pay.
- Outpatient Rehab: Women with children may prefer outpatient rehab programs over similar inpatient facilities since they allow them to remain at home with their families while going through treatment.
- Aftercare: Many people assume that treatment is finished once the initial rehabilitation process is complete, but aftercare plays a crucial role in sustaining long-term sobriety. Various aftercare program elements to help prevent relapse and maintain sobriety include:
- Sober living communities.
- Ongoing individual and group therapy.
- Family counseling.
- Support groups.
- 12-step meetings.
- Employment assistance programs.
- Peer support.