The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use reported that 5.7% of American women have a substance use disorder (SUD) in the United States, while 3% suffer from a drug use disorder, and 10.4% have an alcohol use disorder. Historically, men have been more likely to develop an SUD, but women also suffer in great numbers. In fact, the once large gap between rates of overdose deaths for men as compared to women has been steadily closing, and it’s expected that overdose rates among women will continue to increase in the next couple of years. The difference in women’s treatment needs is a result of biological differences and gender differences, including the social and cultural roles of women in society.
Biologically, SUD progresses at a faster rate for women than for men, and women are more susceptible to cravings and relapse. Biological differences accelerate the progression of addiction because women metabolize alcohol and drugs differently. Women have fewer stomach enzymes and more fatty tissue which slows down the processing of alcohol and other drugs, causing the body to be exposed to higher concentrations of the substance longer.
Socially, women experience greater levels of stigmatization around substance use as a result of their traditional roles as gatekeepers, mothers, caregivers, and often the central organizing factor in their families. Many cultures revere women in the family and community, making it harder for them to admit the problem and seek treatment. Poverty is also more prevalent in women than in men, creating another treatment barrier.
To help women access behavioral health recovery services, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration recommends some very specific supports that treatment providers must put in place:
- Sexual healthcare education and linkage
- Gender-specific care that attends to the roles and barriers of women, including diverse cultural needs
- Childcare assistance, including more treatment programs that accept infants and children
- Legal support for issues of divorce, domestic violence, child custody, and other women’s issues
- The use of use of supportive therapies in treatment (e.g., empathy, connection, warmth)
- Practical education and support for parenting, job training, self-esteem and body image, housing, and financial independence.
Find out more about: women’s treatment needs from SAMHSA