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Women and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse affects individuals of all genders, but women often face distinct challenges and experiences. While men historically have been more likely to develop a substance use disorder, women also suffer in great numbers. In recent years, the once-large gap between the rates of overdose deaths for men and women has been steadily closing, and it is expected that the rates of overdose among women will continue to increase.

Biological Factors Associated with Drug Abuse

women and substance abuse for themselves or women family members

Biologically, substance abuse in women progresses at a faster rate than men, and women are more susceptible to craving and relapse. Physiological differences accelerate the progression of addiction, as women metabolize alcohol and drugs differently. Fewer stomach enzymes and more fatty tissue slow down the processing of alcohol and other drugs, causing the body to be exposed to higher concentrations of the substance longer. This can lead to an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder or other substance use disorders.

Hormonal changes throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle can also impact the effects of substances on the body and brain, from pain to other women’s health concerns. Fluctuations in estrogen levels may influence cravings and increase the risk of relapse. Additionally, women are more likely to experience chronic pain conditions, which can lead to misuse of prescription drug use, such as pain relievers. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration emphasizes the importance of considering these biological factors in substance use disorder treatment for women.

Cultural and Social Challenges

Culturally, women suffering from addiction have often experienced greater levels of stigmatization around substance use as a result of their traditional societal roles as gatekeepers, mothers, caregivers, and often the central organizing factor in their family units. With the integration of women into the mainstream workforce, women have also begun consuming alcohol at intensities and frequencies that are quickly catching up to that of their male counterparts.

Gender differences in substance use patterns and consequences are important to consider. Women are more likely to abuse drugs, especially prescription drugs for non-medical reasons compared to men. Drug use may also include substances as a coping mechanism for stress, trauma, or mental health problems. The National Comorbidity Survey Replication found that women with substance use disorders are more likely to have co-occurring mental health disorders like depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and eating disorders compared to men.

Unique Needs and Barriers to Treatment for Substance Use Disorders

Women suffering from substance use disorder face unique barriers to seeking treatment, including stigma, lack of childcare, and economic challenges. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that women are more likely to face multiple barriers to accessing substance abuse treatment compared to men. Addressing these barriers is crucial for helping women achieve long-term recovery from drug abuse and substance abuse. Unique experiences and challenges that women needing substance use disorder treatment face include:

Stigma and Societal Roles

The shame, blame, and guilt attached to addiction can be stronger for women, especially mothers. Women report higher levels of stigma than men, and stigma is a known barrier to treatment seeking. Prolonged isolation may also be common in stay-at-home moms or in cases where women have not had active employment outside the home.

Mental Illness, Trauma, and Co-Occurring Disorders Women Face

Compared to men, a higher percentage of women with substance use disorder have been victims of domestic violence that includes physical, verbal, or sexual abuse. Women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are 1.4 times more likely to develop an addiction compared to women without PTSD. Women are also more prone to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders than men. Substance abuse treatment programs must address co-occurring mental illnesses and disorders for improved treatment outcomes.

Gender Inequalities

Women are more likely to experience economic barriers to treatment. Pay gaps, lower wages, less income, or the higher likelihood of women living in poverty before substance use disorder onset, can limit the financial resources available to seek services and treatment. Providing comprehensive services and continuing care post-treatment is known to reduce substance use in both genders, but a higher number of women need those services.


70% of women entering addiction treatment have children. Women entering treatment are more likely to have primary responsibility for their children, whereas the majority of fathers entering addiction treatment have another primary caretaker available. Women with children may also be hesitant to seek treatment for fear of legal action and social service involvement. Pregnant women with substance use disorders face additional challenges and may avoid seeking prenatal care due to fear of stigma or legal consequences.

human services for women seeking treatment for addiction to alcohol and other substances

Supportive Measures for Women in Treatment

There are several ways to improve treatment options for women in need of substance use treatment. Fortunately, there are treatment centers that are designed to best serve women seeking treatment for alcohol use disorders and substance use disorders. Types of treatment improvement protocol changes that can help women with addiction include:

Gender-Specific Programming

Due to the high number of women with a history of sexual or physical abuse or body image issues, gender-specific options such as housing, peer support groups, or same-sex provider and care teams may help facilitate a safe environment for the patient to focus on treatment and recovery.

Women-only groups can provide a supportive space for discussing gender differences and sensitive topics and building connections with other women in recovery from substance use disorder and alcohol abuse.

Supportive Therapies

Research has found that women enter addiction treatment with lower self-esteem than their male counterparts. The use of supportive therapies (e.g., empathy, connection, warmth) is more effective for women to treat alcohol abuse and substance use disorder. Incorporating family-centered treatment approaches can also be beneficial, as women’s substance use often impacts their relationships with partners and children.

Childcare and Legal Support

By providing childcare support, programs can help women enter and stay in treatment, allowing women to help themselves and their children. Some programs may also seek to offer legal support to assist mothers who have had their children removed by social services. Addressing these practical barriers can improve treatment retention and outcomes for women.

Integrated, Trauma-Informed Care

Treatment should utilize an integrated approach that acknowledges the whole person, including a person’s parenting and family responsibilities and uses trauma-informed approaches that screen and assess for any history of trauma.

Addressing the impact of trauma on mental health and substance use is crucial for supporting women’s recovery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides guidelines for implementing trauma-informed care in behavioral health settings.

Get Started with Substance Abuse Treatment

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction and are ready to seek treatment, our compassionate, dedicated staff is here to help. At our Lancaster drug rehab, we provide individualized treatment plans for each person to address their specific needs, circumstances, and recovery goals.

With a combination of evidence-based therapies and personalized care, we believe that long-term recovery is achievable. Give us a call at (866) 307-3949 or send us a secure message using our online form, and let’s talk about which treatment options are best to help you overcome your substance abuse struggles and move forward on the path to recovery.

Additional Resources for Substance Abuse Care

If you are struggling with substance use disorders, there are local and online resources that can provide help. You can find informational and educational resources online or talk to local healthcare providers to get connected with mental healthcare and substance abuse services in your area.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

SAMHSA provides educational and informational resources for individuals as well as a treatment locator tool that allows individuals to look for treatment centers near home. This tool can be a great way to filter by location and treatment preference type when looking for addiction recovery options.

Local Support Groups

Another option for support is community-based support groups. These include groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) where individuals can talk to others who have gone through similar experiences and get emotional support, accountability, and access to local resources. Meetings can be found on the AA website and NA website.

Alpha Recovery Center offers comprehensive treatment and support for individuals battling addiction and co-occurring mental health challenges.

Most Insurance Plans Accepted

We believe that financial barriers should not prevent anyone from accessing high-quality addiction treatment. At Alpha Recovery Center, we work with a broad range of insurance providers to ensure individuals struggling with addiction can access effective care and treatment tailored to their specific needs. Our dedicated team is here to guide you through the intricacies of your insurance benefits, helping you to fully understand and maximize your coverage for the treatment you need.

For questions about your insurance coverage options, please reach out to our team by phone or fill out our online insurance verification form. An admissions coordinator will promptly follow up with you. If you are currently without insurance or have limited coverage, our team is here to guide you through alternative options.

Eric Chaghouri, M.D.


Dr. Eric Chaghouri

Check if your insurance coverage will cover the cost of treatment.

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