Generally , men struggle with addiction at higher rates than women. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported, in 2008, that 11.5 percent of males ages 12 and older struggled with drug or alcohol abuse compared to 6.4 percent of women. That being said, women are abusing substances at higher rates than they once were. While the rates of addiction to drugs or alcohol between genders are changing, men are more likely to receive a diagnosis of addiction while women are more likely to struggle with mental health problem.
Addiction is triggered by a complex interaction between genetic risks, life stress, and family history. Both men and women struggle with these triggers2, but women will experience these differently than men. Women’s specific triggers for substance abuse can differ from men’s due to social and biological differences.
Life Stress Impacts Women Differently
There is more social stigma associated with women abusing drugs compared to men. For this reason, women may be less likely to seek addiction treatment; however, women are more likely to seek treatment for other conditions, especially mental health problems, which may uncover struggles with substance abuse later. As cultural attitudes around women’s substance abuse, especially use of alcohol, change, women are abusing drugs at higher rates; however, they may still be stigmatized for admitting they have a problem.
Some of the stresses that may contribute to women’s risk of substance abuse include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Women are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol if they suffered a form of trauma, leading to PTSD. Although abuse and violence can happen to both women and men, women are at greater risk for becoming victims of sexual assault, childhood abuse, and intimate partner violence (IPV). Estimates suggest that up to 80 percent of women seeking treatment for addiction have a lifetime history of physical or sexual assault.
Being the victim of a traumatic event increases the risk of PTSD, which contributes to developing substance abuse problems as a form of self-medication. Other studies found that 74 percent of women struggling with addiction reported at least one instance of sexual abuse, 72 percent reported being the victims of emotional abuse, and 52 reported struggling with physical abuse.
- Pregnancy, postpartum depression, raising children, and family stress: Women who struggle with drug abuse are more likely to lose custody of their children, develop postpartum depression after child birth, and cause harm to themselves and their child during pregnancy. Conversely, women are more likely to take on the work of being caretakers for children and elderly parents. They may abuse drugs or alcohol to relieve the stress of these family responsibilities, and they worry about reducing their family responsibilities in order to seek treatment.
A 2013 survey reported that women describe a “second shift” in responsibilities during the day, from work into their home. This shift does not describe going from stressful to relaxing, but differences in the source of stress. Women are also more likely to suffer increased stress during a divorce because of financial changes, child custody struggles, and loss of a partner and their community.
- Higher rates of mood and eating disorders: Both men and women struggle with mood disorders like depression and anxiety, as well as eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia; however, women are at greater risk for developing these conditions, which puts them at higher risk of substance abuse. Women are 40 percent more likely to develop a mental health condition compared to men. However, many of these reports could be biased because women are more likely to self-report mental and behavioral struggles while men are less likely to report these experiences. Women experience less social stigma for being depressed or anxious and are more likely to seek treatment for mood disorders.
- Greater susceptibility to drugs’ effects: Women tend to weigh less than men on average; they tend to have more body fat than men while retaining less water; and their hormonal cycles are different from men. These factors change how women experience the effects of drugs.
Women are more likely to feel like they need drugs, seek out the euphoric effects of drugs, experience side effects from lower doses, and experience chronic health problems from drug and alcohol abuse. Women who abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to develop heart problems and have an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Menstrual cycles can affect how potent drugs are for women because of changes in the amount of progesterone and estrogen in the woman’s body.
Additionally, societal stress on women’s appearance leads them to develop eating disorders, which is associated with an increased risk of alcohol abuse or stimulant addiction. About 50 percent of people, regardless of gender, who struggle with an eating disorder develop an addiction.
Treatment Programs for Women
Alcohol and drug treatment programs were originally developed around medical research on men’s experiences. Women were rarely involved in medical programs for substance abuse. However, as women are included in addiction research more often, rehabilitation programs are taking their specific emotional, social, and physical needs into account. More treatment programs offer childcare, detox for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and strong social support for women.