For many people out there, it can be difficult to talk, or even think, about women and drug addiction. Historically seen as caregivers and nurturers, women often feel they have to uphold a certain image. Those who have drinking or drug problems, or even those who struggle with mental health, feel they need to hide their darkness from society. They bottle it up and cope at home, which often fuels the addiction cycle.
The women who are open about their drug abuse are faced with great stigma. They may hear negative remarks such as, “She’s a bad mother,” “Her drinking is unladylike,” or even, “She doesn’t care about her family.” Due to the wiring of women’s brains (and their propensity to mental health problems), they may also feel more alone and hopeless about the possibility of recovery. Many women battling addiction feel that they will never overcome the disease.
All of these attitudes are preventing many women from getting the help that they need. To shatter the stigma around women and addiction, Turnbridge breaks down the top myths (and facts!) about the female experience below.
Myth: Women are less likely to use drugs (and become addicted) than men.
Fact: In the past, men were known to abuse drugs more frequently than women – but this is back when addiction research was primarily male-focused. As of 2020, the gender gap is closing. Today, about 19.5 million women over age 18 use illicit drugs. And this is just women of adult age. According to recent research, adolescent girls are now 15 times more likely to use drugs than their mothers by age 15.
While it’s still true that men use drugs more often than women, both genders are equally likely to continue using once the drugs are introduced. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, women are also just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder. Even more, women tend to progress from first use to addiction more quickly than their male counterparts.
Myth: Women are less likely to suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders.
Fact: Women are very likely to suffer from co-occurring substance and mental health disorders. This is because women are actually more susceptible to mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and trauma than men. Women are twice as likely as men to develop major depressive disorder, an eating disorder, or an anxiety disorder. Up to 99 percent of women in drug treatment have experienced trauma in their lives, such as physical abuse or the death of a loved one.
It is the symptoms of these conditions that often lead women towards drug use, to try and cope or self-medicate. In fact, this is one of the leading causes of drug use among women. Many women report using drugs to relieve stress or negative emotions, and studies show that women primarily use drugs in response to psychological stress cues. (In comparison, men are more likely to use drugs in response to drug-related cues, like peer pressure and party scenes.) For this reason, women are more likely to develop a substance use disorder in efforts to calm negative mental health symptoms, such as:
- Painful memories
- Traumatic flashbacks
- Social anxiety
- Negative self-image
- Obsessive thoughts
Women are also more likely to use drugs in response to traumatic events such as a divorce, death of partner or child, or a loss of child custody.
Myth: Women are more likely to get help for addiction.
Fact: In general, women are more likely to ask for help and to seek mental health services than men. However, national research shows that women are less likely to receive adequate substance abuse treatment or receive the specialized care they need.
Getting specialized addiction treatment is not easy for women. They face a number of unique barriers when it comes to getting drug and alcohol treatment. For example, women are more likely to be the primary caretakers of children, and therefore less able to attend a long-term or residential treatment program (both of which are recommended). They are also more likely to struggle with the stigma surrounding drug addiction, and as a result, may be more hesitant to seek help. Women who are mothers, or pregnant, face some of the greatest stigma and shame of all. They may be scared to seek help out of fear of what others will think.
Due to the judgment and shame around women and addiction today, most women feel more comfortable and at-ease in a women’s only rehab center. In this type of gender-specific setting, they are surrounded by others of similar experiences, and treatment is tailored to the unique needs of women battling addiction. For example, women’s rehab centers will usually enact trauma-informed treatment methods. The staff will also be specialized in helping women work through issues like rape, child abuse, domestic violence, and co-occurring mental health disorders.
Myth: Addiction treatment is the same for both men and women.
Fact: As noted above, women typically develop substance use disorders at a faster rate than men. As a result, they often enter addiction treatment with more severe medical, behavioral, psychological, and social problems. They often enter with co-occurring mental disorders, or with a history of trauma. For this reason, women require very specialized counseling and care.
Individuals with co-occurring mental and substance use disorders are often more resistant to treatment, compared to patients with just one disorder. As a result, they require integrated dual diagnosis treatment, in which both the mental disorder and the addictive disorder are treated at the same time. This improves their likelihood for success.
Myth: Addiction in women is not treatable.
Fact: Addiction is a chronic disease, much like asthma or diabetes. While there is no cure, addiction is very treatable and manageable. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Treatment enables people to counteract addiction's disruptive effects on their brain and behavior and regain control of their lives.” This is known as being in recovery.
Women especially tend to fare well after receiving professional addiction treatment. According to an article from Psychology Today, women are more likely to stay abstinent (sober) than men, because they are more willing to ask for help, make changes when needed, and utilize therapy for emotional support.
If you have a loved one who is battling drug abuse or a mental health disorder, know that recovery is possible. Trauma-informed, gender-specific treatment is the best next step for women battling addiction. To help your loved one get the help she needs, or to learn about Turnbridge’s drug rehab program for women, please call 877-581-1793.