- Prevalence and Causes of Addiction Among Women
- Substances Most Commonly Abused by Women
- Co-Occurring Disorders Among Women
- Social and Cultural Contributors to Addiction Among Females
- Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Addiction
- Benefits of Gender-Specific Treatment
- Seeking Help
- Key Sources
- Medical Disclaimer
Daniella is a single parent with two young children. As well as working two part-time jobs, she is also studying for an online registered nursing degree. However, her long work hours and stressful schedule have led to bouts of anxiety and sleep disturbances. To cope with these issues, Daniella takes prescription stimulants and opioids to manage her workload and unwind at night.
Over time, Daniella has increased the dosages of her prescriptions to feel the desired effects. This has led her to buy multiple prescriptions from different doctors, which is eating away at her monthly income. The higher dosages are also producing symptoms such as irritability, paranoia, and mood swings, and this is affecting her relationship with her kids. Unsure of where to turn, Daniella is on the verge of burnout and feels ever more helpless about her situation.
The above story, while fictional, is an illustration of how some women can end up developing a substance abuse problem. Huge demands and pressures from work and family life can prompt many women to turn to substances to cope.
While substance abuse can be a difficult thing to address, there are resources and treatment options available for women of all ages and backgrounds.
Prevalence and Causes of Addiction Among Women
- According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), women struggle with substance abuse less than men, at a rate of 5.8% and 10.8%, respectively.
- However, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that nearly 27 million U.S. women (roughly 13% of the U.S. population) have used illegal drugs or prescription drugs in the past year.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that between 1999 to 2015, prescription opioid deaths increased more than twice as fast among women than men.
- Young women between the ages of 12 and 17 are more likely to misuse all types of prescription opioids and stimulants compared with boys of the same age.
- While men are more likely to abuse illicit drugs and alcohol, women are more likely to end up in the emergency room or fatally overdose due to substance abuse. For example, of all the women who die of opioid overdoses, an estimated 30% of those go to the emergency department for painkiller misuse or abuse.
Substances Most Commonly Abused by Women
When it comes to substances, men tend to abuse alcohol more than women, and women tend to abuse prescription drugs more than men. The reasons for these are diverse, but women often turn to drugs for issues such as weight loss, exhaustion, and pain relief, whereas men are more likely to abuse substances for stress relief and recreation.
While men have higher rates of alcohol abuse, girls aged 12 to 20 have slightly higher rates of binge drinking and alcohol misuse than men of the same age. One of the differentiating factors when it comes to alcohol is the way it is metabolized in the body. Women tend to weigh less, and they have less water in their bodies than men, which affects how alcohol is absorbed and broken down.
As a result, women tend to have more long-term health consequences than men, with alcohol-associated death rates being 50% to 100% higher in some cases. Women are also more likely to become intoxicated from smaller quantities of alcohol than men. They also have higher blood alcohol concentrations after prolonged drinking or binge drinking.
Stimulants (Cocaine and Crystal Meth)
Research shows that women are just as likely to abuse stimulants as men. However, animal studies show that women are prone to taking cocaine more quickly (and in larger amounts) than males. Due to its effects on estrogen, women are also said to be more sensitive to cocaine’s effects, and when compared to men they also tend to have fewer brain abnormalities in the frontal regions after prolonged abuse of the drug. This suggests that a sex-related mechanism may protect women from the damaging effects of cocaine.
In terms of methamphetamine use, while use rates are similar between men and women, the reasons for consuming them are not. Women typically report exhaustion from work, childcare, and family responsibilities as reasons for usage. Some women also use meth to lose weight and increase energy.
Central nervous system depressants are more commonly abused by women. These include sedatives like Xanax that are normally used to treat seizures, sleep disorders, and anxiety disorders. Women are also more likely to die from overdoses from these types of medications. In fact, more women than men are sent to the emergency room for complications or overdoses associated with antidepressants and benzodiazepines. These figures may be due to the fact that women are at greater risk of anxiety and sleep disorders than men.
Some studies indicate that women are more sensitive to pain and may experience more episodes of frequent pain compared with men. Some women also use these drugs to self-medicate other conditions such as anxiety, especially as opioids create a relaxing effect on the central nervous system. This contributes to high prescription opioid (e.g., OxyContin) and synthetic opioid (e.g., heroin) rates among women. Sadly, opioid death rates among women have also grown significantly by 596% between 1999 and 2016, compared with only 312% among men over the same period.
Co-Occurring Disorders Among Women
Depression and Anxiety
While both men and women are affected by depression and anxiety, women are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder. For example, women are twice as likely to be affected by generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) than men. Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that around 40% of the disabilities from psychiatric disorders among women are due to major depressive disorder. This is compared to rates of 29% in men.
Individuals struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety are more likely to abuse substances than those who do not. Also, these individuals are more likely to relapse if their underlying conditions aren’t addressed.
Eating disorders are another common comorbid disorder among women. Research indicates that nearly 85% – 90% of bulimia or anorexia cases are among women. Research also shows a strong connection between eating disorders and substance abuse — with co-occurring rates of nearly 50% — especially if the individual is taking stimulants to encourage appetite suppression and weight loss. Another factor with eating disorders is that decreased muscle and fat mass can increase the body’s dependence on substances.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
While PTSD affects men and women of all backgrounds, women are more likely to experience traumatic events that create this condition. For example, women have higher rates of sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and/or physical abuse. There is also a strong link between PTSD and substance abuse. Some studies indicate that around 34% of those with PTSD have reported at least one substance use disorder. Also, the rate of physical or sexual abuse histories among women who seek substance abuse treatment can be as high as 55% to 99%.
Addiction is a complex set of behaviors and conditions with no single determining cause. Like men, women who struggle with substance abuse may have multiple underlying issues that have led to the problem, combined with other factors in their environment.
The biggest contributing factors to substance addiction in females include:
- Underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
- Family history (being exposed to others with addiction).
- Trauma/experiences of mental, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- Stress, family/life pressures.
- Encouraged drinking culture (at work or among friends).
- Peer pressure and a desire to bond with other women.
- Longing for a sense of community.
- Yearning for rebellion (especially during the adolescent years).
Along with these contributing factors, women can also develop substance abuse problems because of other issues, such as coping with exhaustion, juggling multiple responsibilities, and wanting to lose weight.
When it comes to seeking treatment, women often face barriers to treatment such as children or family responsibilities, and are more likely to be living in poverty. Not only can treatment be expensive, but some women feel as though they don’t have the time to incorporate therapy into their busy schedules. In some cases, women may also fear that their children will be taken away if they seek treatment. This can lead some women to try and manage their issues on their own without the aid of treatment.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Addiction
There are many signs and symptoms of substance abuse that can be applied to both men and women. These include:
- A decline in personal appearance.
- Withdrawal from friends or family.
- Reduced enjoyment or participation in activities they once enjoyed.
- Lying about drug or alcohol use.
- Spending a great deal of time using and recovering from the effects of substances.
- Exhibiting a need to drink or use drugs to unwind or have a good time.
- Physical signs such as bloodshot eyes, excessive drowsiness (or hyperactivity), poor concentration, memory issues.
- Frequent withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, cravings, or depression.
- Continuing to use substances despite any negative consequences.
- Legal troubles such as arrests, accidents, or DWIs.
- Risky behavior such as drinking and driving, engaging in fights, or unprotected sex.
- Unsuccessfully trying to quit.
- Mood swings or behavior changes.
- Tremors, shaking, or twitching of hands and eyelids.
- Secretive behavior.
Benefits of Gender-Specific Treatment
Gender-specific treatment can greatly enhance recovery, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of women. Historically, drug addiction was often studied or treated from a male perspective. However, today many rehab programs are designed specifically for women.
The value of gender-specific treatment is that it acknowledges that substance abuse progresses differently in men and women. This includes the duration of use as well as how and why these substances are used. Women’s reasons for using substances often differ from men and their response to treatment can also differ. For these reasons, gender-specific treatment is not only beneficial, but it’s also necessary.
Gender-specific treatment can also be effective when it comes to group therapy. Being in an all-female session can be empowering and allow women to feel they have a safe space to open up about their issues. Also, behavioral therapy and specialized education sessions can help address issues that are more relevant to women. This could include parenting issues, pregnancy and children, domestic violence, coping skills, and behavioral techniques for managing eating disorders.
From a wider perspective, women also have different needs when it comes to economic support, childcare options, pregnancy, PTSD, etc. Some women would therefore benefit from outpatient programs that allow them to juggle their work, family, and home life.
Women who require treatment for their substance abuse issues should feel safe about seeking help. Many rehab centers provide programs that are for women only, or they provide gender-specific programs. Some of the programs available to women include:
- Medical detox
- Inpatient/residential programs
- Partial hospitalization programs (PHP)
- Intensive outpatient (IOP) or outpatient programs
- Sober living
If you or someone you know require addiction treatment for men, below are some resources that may be useful:
- Women for Sobriety (WFS):
WFS is a non-profit organization that helps women struggling with addiction and substance abuse. Created for and by women, WFS focuses on the issues that are unique to women and substance use issues.
As part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this site provides information, services, and programs to help improve the health of women.
- Substance Abuse Treatment for Women:
As a chapter in the SAMHSA’s Treatment Improvement Protocols, this site includes a broad range of information on addiction and treatment needs for women.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, you are not alone. Treatment and support are readily available. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment.
You can also find a list of treatment centers near you on our website to help get you on the path to recovery.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Multiple Cause of Death Data.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. drugabuse.gov. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/substance-use-in-women/sex-gender-differences-in-substance-use.
SAMHSA. (2009). Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 09-4426. Rockville, MD: SAMHSA.
Merikangas, K.R., McClair, V.L. (2012). Epidemiology of Substance Use Disorders. Human Genetics; 131(6): 779–789.
Thibaut, F. (2018). Gender Differences in Addiction: Clinical Implications. psychiatrictimes.com. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/gender-differences-addiction-clinical-implications.
At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.
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