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Early substance abuse research focused on male subjects, but in the 1990s, research studies intentionally recruited women. The medical understanding of how women react to drugs and alcohol is changing. Although more men are still diagnosed with addiction, and women are more often diagnosed with mental health disorder the understanding of how women’s health is impacted by substance abuse and addiction is improving.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 15.8 million adult women in the United States abuse illicit drugs per year. This is close to 13 percent of women, ages 18 and older, in the nation.
Women’s patterns around intoxicating substances are different than men’s patterns.
Although environmental stress, genetic risk, and family history contribute to substance abuse risks in both women and men, women have unique risks that increase their risk of abusing drugs or alcohol.
Substance abuse has been reported to co-occur with IPV in 40-60 percent of cases. Abusing drugs and alcohol makes perpetrators more likely to abuse victims, and the mental changes associated with being intoxicated put victims at greater risk of suffering harm from perpetrators. Both perpetrators and victims are also more likely to abuse substances to self-medicate the stress associated with their role in intimate partner violence.
Women are more likely to seek help for mental or behavioral conditions compared to men while men are more likely to enter addiction treatment than women. However, both men and women who suffer from one condition are at greater risk of experiencing the other. Women who seek help from a therapist, physician, or even complementary medical specialist may suffer from substance abuse problems on top of mental health struggles. It is important for therapists and doctors to screen their female clients for potential substance abuse if they seek treatment for mental illness.
Rehabilitation programs should offer forms of assistance focused on women’s specific needs. For example, mothers may need childcare to complete an outpatient rehabilitation program, and women are more likely to need treatment for both a mood disorder and substance abuse. Inpatient treatment programs that help women get job training, professional development, and connections for work can help to keep more women in treatment. In addition, women often benefit from group therapy or support groups are gender-specific.