Addressing Substance Use Disorders in Women: Challenges and the Need for Gender-Specific Treatment

Women facing substance use disorders encounter unique risks influenced by societal norms, relational dynamics, and psychological factors, complicating their path to recovery. Their substance use patterns often reflect social contexts, such as coping with unhealthy relationships or delaying treatment due to familial responsibilities. This necessitates gender-specific treatment approaches that address the distinct challenges women face, promoting more effective recovery and improved well-being.

Prevalence and Treatment Obstacles

Substance use disorders affect a significant portion of the population, and women constitute more than 30% of Americans who receive treatment for these disorders. Despite this, women are less likely than men to seek treatment, often delaying it long after the onset of drug use. For women with children, caregiving responsibilities and fear of losing custody frequently contribute to this delay.

In a 2012 US national survey, 5.9% of pregnant women reported illicit drug use, 8.5% acknowledged alcohol consumption, and 15.9% reported cigarette smoking during pregnancy. These statistics underscore the critical need for targeted interventions and support for women, particularly those who are pregnant.

Unique Risk Factors

Societal norms and expectations can affect women differently, potentially influencing their vulnerability to substance use and its associated risks. Women who are drug-dependent face several unique risks, including:

  • Physical health problems
  • Mental health conditions
  • High-risk sexual behaviors
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Detrimental parenting styles affecting children’s psychological development
  • Rapid progression of substance use disorder

These risks underscore the complex and often intertwined challenges that women with drug dependence confront. Addressing these risks with tailored interventions is crucial to promoting recovery and improving overall well-being for women struggling with drug dependence.

Patterns of Substance Use

Women’s substance use patterns often differ from men’s in notable ways:

  • Often initiated by male partners
  • Used as a mechanism to cope with abusive relationships and other stressors
  • Faster progression to dependence
  • Treatment delayed, especially for those with children

Women’s substance use is deeply intertwined with their social and relational contexts, which must be considered in treatment. Treatment can effectively address these unique aspects of women’s substance use by adopting a gender-specific approach that acknowledges their social and relational contexts.

Influences of Substance Use Disorder

Women commonly experience factors that influence substance use disorder at higher rates than men, such as:

  • Coexisting mental health conditions, including depression
  • Struggles with self-esteem
  • Extensive childhood trauma histories, including:
    • Emotional abuse (96% of women in treatment)
    • Sexual abuse (51% of women in treatment)
    • Physical abuse (79% of women in treatment)
  • Interpersonal violence in adolescent and adult relationships
  • Involvement with child protective services
  • Dependency on others for financial support
  • Homelessness
  • Criminal activity
  • Involvement with drug-dependent partners
  • Childcare responsibilities
  • History of prostitution

Women’s experiences, shaped by complex social, psychological, and environmental factors, can significantly influence their vulnerability to substance abuse and addiction. These realities emphasize the critical importance of gender-sensitive approaches in treatment that address these specific challenges, offering tailored support and healing for women navigating substance use disorders.

Need for Gender-Specific Substance Use Treatment For Women

Research indicates that men and women require different approaches in substance use treatment. Historically designed for men, co-ed treatment often fails to address the unique experiences and gender-specific circumstances women face, reducing its effectiveness for women. Consequently, women are less likely to enter and remain in co-ed treatment programs.

Gender differences in interaction styles and societal norms may negatively affect women in co-ed groups. Therefore, substance use treatment for women, particularly those who are pregnant or have dependent children, must address these complex psychosocial issues differently.

Effectiveness of Gender-Specific Substance Use Treatment For Women

Gender-specific treatment has been shown to increase the odds of success for women by 44% 10 years following treatment compared to co-ed treatment. Studies comparing gender-specific and co-ed programs found that women were twice as likely to complete gender-specific programs, and longer retention was strongly associated with high levels of post-treatment abstinence.

Women in gender-specific programs are more likely to continue care (37%) compared to those in co-ed programs (14%). Additionally, gender-specific treatment for women is associated with:

  • Higher satisfaction with treatment
  • Greater decreases in psychiatric symptoms
  • Fewer subsequent substance use treatment admits
  • Fewer post-treatment arrests and less criminal activity
  • Less drug use six months after treatment
  • Reduced PTSD symptoms

In terms of alcohol use disorder, intensive gender-specific treatment programs can decrease alcohol consumption and mortality rates and improve long-term employment outcomes. A meta-analysis concluded that gender-specific treatment was particularly effective in improving pregnancy outcomes.

While evidence comparing gender-specific treatment for women versus co-ed treatment does not provide strong support for differential outcomes, studies suggest that some women perceive gender-specific treatment more positively, viewing it as a safer atmosphere. Women with substance use disorders are heterogeneous, and access to gender-specific treatment is essential for those who might otherwise be hindered in co-ed settings.

Women’s Gender-Specific Residential Treatment in Park City

Jupiter by Wasatch Crest offers a supportive refuge for women struggling with substance use. Through a meaningful clinical curriculum curated to the way women experience substance use struggles, Jupiter helps women heal deeply and connect profoundly with others in recovery. Located in Park City and incorporating nature into therapy sessions, Jupiter offers women an opportunity to heal surrounded by alpine beauty. Reach out to learn more. 



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