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Women and Addiction: Risk Factors, Substance Use Patterns, and Treatment

While men tend to have higher rates of substance abuse, women face unique issues when it comes to addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “women may be more susceptible to craving and relapse, which are key phases of the addiction cycle.”[1] Women also tend to face an array of barriers to long-term recovery. 

Research has shown that 19.5 million women used illicit drugs in the past year. That equates to about 15.4% of adult women in the United States.[2] But why are women facing such high rates of substance abuse and addiction?

Experts believe that the biological and cultural influences that women deal with play a role in high rates of substance abuse. For example, the prevalence of abuse-related trauma, untreated mental health conditions, and societal pressures that women struggle with cause the increase in addiction rates.

It’s important to address each and every one of the gender-specific needs of women during addiction treatment. Failure to do so can make it difficult to stay sober.

Risk Factors for Addiction Specific to Women

Women face a unique set of challenges when it comes to the development of substance abuse and addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “women themselves describe unique reasons for using drugs, including controlling weight, fighting exhaustion, coping with pain, and attempts to self-treat mental health problems.”[2]

Sexual and Domestic Abuse 

Research shows that 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of completed or attempted rape at some point in their lives.[3] Experiencing rape or any form of sexual assault often leads to an array of psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. 

Experiencing sexual abuse is a huge risk factor for addiction. According to research, around 75% of women in treatment for substance abuse experienced a form of sexual trauma.[4] Most of the time, they were sexually abused as a child.

Another common trauma that women face is domestic abuse, with 1 in 4 women experiencing intimate partner violence.[5] Experiencing domestic violence leads to many of the same effects as sexual abuse, such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and addiction. 

When women experience a trauma such as sexual or domestic abuse, they may not have the resources they need to heal. This often leads to unbearable symptoms, causing women to begin self-medicating their emotions. 

Untreated Mental Health Conditions 

Unfortunately, many women with mental health conditions do not receive the treatment they need. This may be due to gender bias in the medical field, high costs for treatment, and even lack of research into women-specific symptoms of mental disorders.

When mental health conditions are left untreated, women are likely to begin self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. The most common mental health conditions to co-occur with addiction include:

  • Major depressive disorder 
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Bipolar disorder I and II

Societal Pressures 

Women face an array of unique societal pressures, including the expectation of always looking good and being “put together.” These societal pressures can take a toll on emotional health.

This causes a woman’s self-worth to be dependent on how society views her. The unfair standard of expecting women to always “have it all together” causes many women to hide their struggles. This can cause women to feel ashamed or guilty if they are struggling, leading them to self-medicate their feelings. 

These same societal pressures can also make some women reluctant to seek treatment.

Eating Disorders 

Women struggle with eating disorders at staggeringly higher rates than men. This is probably due to the societal pressures that women face. 

When a woman suffers from an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia, it is not uncommon for them to abuse substances. They may use drugs to stimulate weight loss, stifle hunger, or cope with the emotions related to their eating disorder.

What Substance Abuse Patterns are Prevalent Among Women?

The following outlines common substance abuse trends among women:[1,2]

  • Women are more susceptible to the addictive effects of stimulant drugs due to estrogen
  • Women report abusing methamphetamine to increase energy, decrease exhaustion, and lose weight
  • Most women who use heroin intravenously report doing so due to social pressure and intimate partner encouragement
  • Typically, women become addicted to substances faster than men
  • Women are more likely than men to visit the emergency room or die as a result of overdose or drug-related effects 
  • Women who are a victim of domestic or sexual abuse are more likely to abuse substances 
  • Dying from overdoses after abusing psychiatric medications is more common among women
  • Young girls from the ages 12-20 are more likely than their male peers to misuse and binge drink alcohol 
  • In terms of people with alcohol use disorders, the death rate for women is 50-100x higher than men, including deaths from suicides, alcohol-related accidents, heart disease, stroke, and liver disease

Women-Specific Addiction Treatment

Because of the glaring differences between addiction in women and men, there are gender-specific addiction treatment programs. Women experience unique risk factors for addiction, making it important for individualized programs to be available. 

Women-specific treatment focuses on the female experience. The treatment offered at these programs highlights recovery from societal pressures on women, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other women’s issues. 

Additionally, these programs are typically female-led. This is important for women who have suffered from traumatic experiences at the hands of a man, as they may feel more comfortable opening up to women counselors and doctors.

Overall, women-specific addiction treatment programs aim to help women heal from the gender-specific issues that played a role in the development of their addictions. This promotes higher rates of success and stronger foundations for long-term recovery. 

Find Help for Yourself or an Addicted Loved One Today

Addiction is a serious issue among both men and women. However, addiction tends to develop in women for different reasons. Because of this, individualized, gender-specific therapy and care are extremely important. 

At Mandala Healing Center, we perform thorough biopsychosocial assessments of every patient who comes through our doors. This allows us to get a deeper understanding of the individual patient’s unique treatment needs. 

If you or a loved one struggles with addiction, contact Mandala Healing Center today.