Women have unique addiction treatment needs that are not always adequately addressed in general programs. They frequently develop their substance abuse problems due to physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a man. Women also metabolize drugs and alcohol differently, and they usually take a greater toll on them. While men still tend to have higher overall rates of substance abuse, drug and alcohol problems tend to develop much faster in women.
In mixed groups, women sometimes feel they cannot be completely open about their issues. There is also the pernicious issue of “13th stepping” in recovery groups, which is largely conducted by predatory men seeking to take advantage of vulnerable women who are just starting their rehab. And while legitimate romances can also bloom in support groups, these are often a detrimental distraction in the early stages of recovery and can often derail a program entirely.
As mentioned previously, sexual or physical abuse is very common in women who have substance abuse issues, so a women’s treatment program needs to have trained mental health counselors who have expertise in that area. Women are also more likely to have PTSD as a result of their experiences.
Life circumstances are also a major factor in planning out treatment for women. Women are much more likely to be single parents than men, and have the unique complication of a potential pregnancy while in treatment. Women who are fleeing an abusive situation may also have very little in the way of financial resources or ability to sustain themselves.
The way women come to treatment is also different. Women are more likely than men to voluntarily seek treatment, and to come to that treatment through mental health channels. The practice of “dual diagnosis,” where a mental health disorder is diagnosed and treated alongside a substance abuse issue, is absolutely vital in a program that is designed for women.
As mentioned previously, women who abuse drugs and alcohol have high rates of sexual or physical abuse that precede their substance use. Data collected by the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions in 2011 indicated that anywhere from 55 to 90 percent of women who sought treatment for a substance use disorder suffered some form of abuse in their life.
Among the general population of women, mood and anxiety disorders occur at much greater rates than in men. This also tends to drive self-medication. About 30 percent of women who abuse substances have a mood disorder, and about 26 percent have an anxiety disorder. Depression is the most common mood disorder, and a specific phobia is the most common anxiety disorder, each existing in about 50 percent of women who presented for substance abuse treatment.
High rates of eating disorders among women also fuel substance abuse. About 40 percent of women with long-term eating disorders also have a substance abuse disorder. Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in this case.
Women do have one advantage over men in their treatment in that they tend to get into it by first seeking help from a mental health professional. This allows them to get a leg up on diagnosis of any disorders that are contributing to (or may have been caused by) their substance abuse. Due to the high prevalence of mental health disorders among women who present for treatment, a women’s-only program will put an emphasis on screening women and treating them for co-occurring disorders.
The separation of genders has also been shown to be very helpful to the treatment effort. A 1994 study found that all female participants who initiated a sexual relationship early in their outpatient treatment failed to complete their programs. Women’s facilities provide an environment free of distractions and stress so that women can focus on their recovery.
Women’s programs also usually provide some means of onsite child care when needed, as well as support services for women who are pregnant to minimize the time they have to spend away from the recovery environment.
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