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For Women, Substance Use & Addiction Look Different

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Seeking treatment for substance use disorders is a big step for those who need help, however women and their unique needs are often underrepresented on the path to recovery.

"Just as certain conditions like a heart attack or stroke present differently in women than men, substance use disorders can look different and women may need different tools and techniques during treatment,” said Kelley Story, operations director for Samaritan Treatment & Recovery Services.

Different Triggers

Biological factors like hormones and metabolism can cause a woman’s body to react differently to drugs and alcohol. For example, researchers have found that women use drugs in smaller amounts than men but progress more quickly from casual use to addiction. Woman can experience withdrawal symptoms more intensely, making it harder to quit and certain treatment approaches do not work as well for women.   

Cultural expectations as well as social and emotional concerns mean women often begin using a substance for different reasons than men. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, women report using drugs to control weight, fight exhaustion, control pain and to self-treat mental health problems. Additionally, women report using alcohol to manage stress or negative emotions, usually when they are alone. Men reportedly are more likely to use alcohol to fit in socially or to enhance positive emotions.

Barriers to Treatment

Despite a growing number who need treatment, women are still admitted to treatment programs at a lower rate than their male counterparts. Women have different concerns when they consider treatment that may keep them from getting help. 

Many women who enter a substance use disorder treatment program are mothers. Women may be afraid of losing custody of their children when entering treatment, or of the social stigma attached to substance use and parenting or pregnancy. Even a practical matter like childcare can make it difficult to attend a day-treatment program. 

Women with a substance use disorder tend to have high rates of past physical or sexual abuse, and are more likely to have other mental health issues like depression that also need medical care. They are often more financially vulnerable and may view treatment as too expensive. 

Support for Recovery

The research suggests that successful recovery programs for women must address their unique concerns. You can help.

Addiction can be isolating, so don’t underestimate how important you are,” Story said. “Listen to her concerns without judgment. Encourage her to stick with her treatment plan, even when it’s hard. Find positive social activities to do together that support her journey to health." 

Story continued, it takes family, friends and a community that cares to offer women hope for a better life.