Understanding Women’s Addiction Treatment

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The abuse of alcohol and other drugs is a serious problem that can have life-altering and life-threatening consequences for both men and women. However, women who are addicted to drugs and alcohol have a unique set of needs and face a unique set of risks. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance abuse and addiction can impact women in the following ways:

  • Women can become addicted to substances more quickly than men. On average, they can be addicted even after using smaller amounts of a drug over a shorter period of time than men. Therefore, by the time a woman enters treatment, she may be severely addicted and consequently may require treatment that both identifies her specific needs and responds to them.
  • When a woman is abusing substances, she also can respond differently to those drugs then a man would. Women may have a harder time resisting cravings or avoiding relapse after treatment. Some research suggests that a woman’s vulnerability to relapse is also affected by her menstrual cycle.
  • Certain female sex hormones, such as estrogen, can cause women to be more strongly affected by drugs that they ingest.
  • Women who use drugs can be more vulnerable than men to cardiovascular problems, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and neurological changes.
  • Women are more likely than men to experience an overdose.
  • Certain life stressors, such as divorce, loss of child custody, or losing a significant other can push women towards substance abuse.
  • Unfortunately, women more often than men are victims of domestic violence, and being a victim of domestic violence is a risk factor for substance abuse.

Because of women’s ability to bear children, the effects of substance abuse do not just affect their own bodies. For example, if a woman is abusing substances while she is pregnant, her baby may experience withdrawal, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), after birth. In addition, certain drugs can pass through a woman’s body and be present in her breast milk. Other pregnancy-related risks of substance abuse include a higher risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, birth defects, premature birth, sudden infant death syndrome, developmental delays, and cognitive and behavioral control problems.

In addition to the physiological effects of drug abuse, addiction in women often progresses differently then how it progresses in men. Women in treatment centers often report shorter periods of drug abuse before seeking treatment, perhaps related to the fact that, on average, women’s struggles with substance abuse tend to progress more quickly than men’s struggles with substance abuse.

Due to sociocultural norms, women who are seeking treatment for substance abuse also may experience different social burdens than men. For example, women who are seeking treatment often need to consider not only their own sobriety, but also how to keep up with their responsibilities at work, raising children, taking care of the home, and managing other domestic responsibilities.

Because of the unique ways that substance abuse affects women, treatment that has been designed specifically and exclusively for women can provide numerous benefits, including the following:

  • Safety. Women who are seeking treatment for substance abuse may also have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. Research indicates that up to 70 percent of drug abusing women report histories of physical and sexual abuse. As a result, they may be struggling with depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and other mental health issues related to their experiences. These women may not feel safe in a mixed-gender treatment environment, especially in a residential mixed-sex treatment environment, and so women-only treatment can therefore provide a safe space for these women to get the help and healing that they need and deserve while allowing them to feel safe in their surroundings.
  • Fewer distractions. When a woman is coming for substance abuse treatment, the last thing that she needs is to be distracted by romantic goings-on within her treatment center. Instead, residential treatment should be a place where she can focus exclusively on her own health and well-being.
  • Tailored to a woman’s experience. As the NIDA article referenced above shows, women experience the world differently than men, and they also experience addiction differently than men. Therefore, it is only logical that treatment for substance abuse should focus on a woman’s unique needs and should be attuned to her unique experience. Treatment in a women-only residential treatment program caters specifically to what women need in order to overcome substance abuse. Furthermore, without the presence of men, women may feel freer to discuss topics and process issues that they may not be otherwise comfortable working through.

Many women-only residential treatment programs have been specially designed for women by women. These programs include activities and therapies that are fundamentally geared for a woman’s psyche, and these programs are staffed by teams of people, often a majority of them women, who are knowledgeable about women’s needs and committed to helping women overcome substance abuse issues. Some of these programs are even especially geared towards helping pregnant women safely stop drug use and can also provide childcare, parenting classes, and job training.

By seeking care at a residential treatment center that provides gender-specific treatment for women, women can heal in an environment that provides the safety and support they need to have the best possible chance of reclaiming their lives from substances of abuse.

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