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Boys v. Girls: Gender Differences in Substance Use Disorders and Recovery

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One of the key principles of addiction treatment is that it is fully tailored to a person’s unique, individual needs. A rehab program, for example, should consider a person’s age, level of psychological development, and gender (among other physical, behavioral, social or mental health needs) before determining the appropriate treatment plan.

You may be asking, “Are there really gender differences in substance use disorders?” or, “Do different genders require different methods of addiction treatment?” In short, the answer is yes – and this is true at any age. Inherently, men and women have different developmental experiences, different social encounters, different physical needs, and therefore have distinct demands in addiction treatment. They have different reasons for using drugs, different reactions to using drugs, and even different symptoms and vulnerabilities to substance use disorders. A substance use disorder (SUD) is the clinical term for someone who continues to use drugs or alcohol, even after facing negative consequences as a result.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse makes an important distinction between sex differences and gender differences in substance use disorders. Sex differences relate to biological differences between males and females, while gender differences relate to the culturally-defined roles of men and women.

Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use Initiation

Generally, young men are most likely to try drugs or alcohol as a result of peer pressure, or to try them in a larger group (e.g. of friends, or at a party) at the time of initiation. Women, however, are more likely to initiate substances through a significant relationship – such as a close friend, family member, or significant other – in the privacy of one’s home. Many young women continue drinking or using drugs in efforts to maintain this relationship, which puts them at greater risk for addiction.

Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use

Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs, and illicit drug use among males is more likely to result in emergency room visits or overdose deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This could be a result of the patterns in which men use drugs and alcohol. Men use substances more frequently, and in larger quantities, than their female counterparts. Physically, they can typically tolerate greater doses of drugs and alcohol, and may even require more of a substance than women to feel its effects – This is due to greater water weight, lower body fat, as well as faster liver and kidney function. Men’s bodies work to process and eliminate substances more quickly than females. More often than females, however, men consume more of a drug than their bodies can handle, and face very adverse, damaging effects as a result.

Women, however, are more vulnerable to the long-term effects of drug and alcohol use. The female body retains substances for longer periods of time than men’s, and also require less of a drug to encounter the negative effects. For example, women get drunk and high faster than men, because of their lower volume of body water to dilute the drugs. They also stay drunk and high longer than men, because of their higher volume of body fat (which traps drugs inside the body) and their slower process of eliminating the drugs. As a result, women are quicker to develop dependence and substance use disorders than men, as well as organ damage, nerve damage, and diseases relating to substance abuse.

While men have almost twice the rate of substance dependence as women, women are just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder. And, women are quicker to develop a clinical addiction or substance use disorder than their male counterparts. Women tend to increase their rate of substance use (alcohol, marijuana, opioids and cocaine, specifically) more rapidly than men. Furthermore, once addicted to a drug, women usually find it more difficult to quit than men do – largely because they are more susceptible to cravings and relapse. This gives them very different needs, and obstacles, in addiction treatment.

For most age groups, men have higher rates of use or dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than do women – with one exception. National data shows that among youths aged 12 to 17, the rate of substance dependence for both genders is the same. And there are some key differences in the way these genders experience early drug use. Boys with substance use disorders, for example, are more likely to have disruptive conduct, behavioral, and learning problems. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to have mood disorders alongside a drug problem, such as depression or a history of traumatic, physical/sexual abuse. In fact, women of all ages are more likely to have co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders than men.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Treatments should take into account the higher rate of internalizing and traumatic stress disorders among adolescent girls, the higher rate of externalizing disruptive disorders and juvenile justice problems among adolescent boys, and other gender differences that may play into adolescent substance use disorders.” This is where gender-specific addiction treatment plays a very important role.

Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use Treatment

There are more men than women in addiction treatment today. However, women typically enter substance use treatment with more severe medical, behavioral, psychological, and social problems. As noted above, this is because women show a faster progression from imitation to addiction than their male counterparts. Overall, men and women are equally as likely as one another to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. However, due to the gender differences in substance use disorders, they have very different needs and obstacles in addiction treatment. Today, drug treatment professionals recommend gender-specific treatment for substance use disorders.

Gender-specific addiction treatment means that males and females are treated in separate healing environments. There are many benefits to this method. For one, gender-specific treatment gives each person the chance to connect with others of similar age and experiences, without pressure from, or fear of, the opposite sex. This can make the entire treatment experience more comfortable for many in recovery. The majority of women in addiction treatment, for example, have experienced some sort of physical or sexual trauma in their lifetime. It may be very difficult for women to share these experiences with a male counterpart in the room.

Another benefit is the therapies and clinicians available in each gender-specific program. In a female-only setting, clinicians have been specifically trained to help women battling addiction, including the unique experiences leading up to their substance abuse. Psychologically, women are more likely than men to have co-occurring mental health issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder alongside their addiction. They are also more likely to have children, or to have been pregnant. These factors translate to very unique challenges in treatment for women, which means different treatment modalities throughout the recovery process. The clinical staff in Turnbridge’s treatment program for young women, for example, are all specifically trained in trauma-informed therapies to help women who are battling stress disorders and past traumas alongside substance use.

In addition to tailored therapies, gender-specific treatment also offers very thoughtful activities and experiences based on the needs and interests of men and women in recovery. For example, at Turnbridge, we understand that many young men are hesitant to participate in a treatment program, or even resistant to idea of rehab as a whole. It is our goal to breakdown these barriers from the beginning, with therapy groups of all young men (in very similar shoes), and fun, healthy activities such as basketball, martial arts training, ski and snowboard trips, camping and hiking, boating, and more. This activities are specifically designed to engage young men in their treatment, as well as help them build sober and meaningful friendships throughout their time at Turnbridge. The women’s program is also focused on gender-specific, holistic activities, which you can read about here.

Gender-specific treatment allows young men and women to address deep-seated issues individually and without pressure, in a safe and natural setting. It also enables young men and women in recovery to establish their own goals, and re-discover themselves, without outside temptations. For more information about the gender-specific treatment programs for young men and young women at Turnbridge – or to learn more about the gender differences in substance use disorders and recovery –please do not hesitate to call 877-581-1793.