How Prevalent is Substance Abuse Among Females?

If you have a loved one who is abusing drugs or alcohol, you may be wondering if its “normal” or concerning. Is substance abuse among females common? How does substance abuse affect the female body, and should you be concerned about addiction? These are all important questions to ask.

Historically, addiction research has been predominantly male-focused. This is because men are more likely than women to abuse drugs and to have a drug dependence. However, as times change, studies are finding that women are just as likely as men to develop a substance addiction. And even more notably, women accelerate from substance abuse to addiction at a faster rate than men.

This presents unique challenges for females in substance abuse treatment. When women enter rehab, they often present a more severe clinical profile – i.e. more medical, behavioral, and psychological problems – than their male counterparts, despite having used drugs for a shorter period of time.

Due to the severity of their addiction, women may also be more susceptible to cravings and relapse. According to Harvard research, women are quicker to face the medical or social consequences of substance abuse, and find it harder to quit using drugs over time.

Despite its negative consequences, substance abuse among females is on the rise. More women are abusing drugs than ever before. Today’s generation of adolescent girls, for example, is about 15 times more likely to use drugs by age 15 than their mothers were.

Just how prevalent is substance abuse among females? The latest research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that in the year 2018:

  • Over 32 million women in the United States had a mental or substance use disorder
  • About 2.8 million, or 2 in every 5 women, struggled with illicit drug abuse that year
  • Over 5 million, or 3 in every 4 women, struggled with alcohol abuse
  • Approximately 4.4 million women struggled with both a mental and substance use disorder

According to national studies, the most widely used drug among women today is marijuana, with almost 19 million women having used marijuana in 2018.  Almost 5 million women struggle with opioid abuse – including both prescription painkiller and heroin abuse. Other common drugs abused by women include prescription stimulants like Adderall and depressants like Xanax.

These harrowing statistics beg the question: Why are so many more women abusing substances today? There are many reasons why women use drugs, but perhaps the most prominent one is mental health. As noted above, there are near ten-million women in the United States struggling with both a mental illness and a substance addiction. When a woman battles a substance abuse and mental health disorder at the same time, they are called co-occurring disorders.

Common co-occurring disorders in women include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder, combined with substance abuse. As cited in an article from U.S. News, women are 40 percent more likely than men to develop a mental health disorder like these. And, as a result, they are inherently more vulnerable to substance abuse. Anxiety, mood, and other mental health disorders can cause unforgiving emotional turmoil and psychological stress in women, leading them to use drugs. When a women uses drugs to cope with negative feelings, it is called self-medication.

In the past, we heard less of mental health issues and substance abuse among females, likely because these disorders were kept from the public eye. Women traditionally had roles to fill within society, as caregivers and nurturers. When a woman was battling a mental health disorder or substance abuse, it would be shamed upon. As a result of the stigma, many women were afraid to speak up and get the care they need. While the stigma has reduced and more women are seeking treatment for co-occurring disorders today, there is still a gap. About 90 percent of women battling co-occurring mental and substance use disorders did not receive treatment in 2018.

As detailed in our recent article, the 5 Must-Know Facts about Women and Addiction, women are less likely to receive adequate substance abuse treatment or receive the specialized care they need, in comparison to men. This is because getting (and staying in) treatment is not easy for women. Women are often the primary caretakers of children and family members, and therefore less able to attend a long-term or inpatient program – both of which are recommended for women’s addiction treatment.

Due to the challenges women face in treatment, as well as the severity of their substance abuse and symptoms when they arrive to treatment, women require very specialized and professional care. Substance abuse treatment for women should be gender-specific, trauma-informed, and tailored to the female’s individual needs. If your loved one is abusing drugs and in need of help, rest assured that her substance abuse and addiction is very treatable with the right care and support.

In fact, women tend to fare very well after receiving professional drug treatment. As noted in an article from Psychology Today, women are more likely to stay abstinent from drugs than men, because they are more willing to ask for help, make changes when needed, and utilize therapy for emotional support.

If you are interested in learning more about substance abuse among females, or receiving specialized care in a women’s only treatment setting, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge. Turnbridge offers trauma-informed, gender-specific treatment for young women battling addiction. Learn more by visiting us online or calling 877-581-1793.