Women Face Gender-Specific Challenges in Recovery

When women battle with substance use disorder (SUD), they face relatively different challenges than men. Modern treatment programs are designed to help women meet those gender-specific challenges rather than treating female clients with the same approach they have traditionally utilized with males.

LaTisha L. Bader, Ph.D., LP, LAC, CMPC, has worked in the field of mental health and addiction for more than 18 years. Dr. Bader is a licensed psychologist and a licensed addiction counselor. She is the chief clinical officer at Women’s Recovery.

In a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation, Dr. Bader talked about the specific challenges women with addiction face in recovery. Bader noted gender differences such as using for shorter periods of time, SUDs progressing more quickly after the first use, and more intense withdrawal symptoms.

Gender-specific treatment has been associated with better outcomes and retention in treatment. Programs providing gender-specific treatment for women should include the following components:

  • Emotional and physical safety for female clients (many of whom were physically attacked and traumatized by men)
  • Services designed to increase women’s access to care, and engagement and retention of clients
  • Women-only therapy environments
  • Women-specific services needs and topic areas addressed in treatment and support services
  • Multiple modalities to meet the specific needs of women

Dr. Bader emphasizes the importance of trauma-informed care, as approximately 80 percent of women seeking SUD treatment report a lifetime history of sexual assault, physical assault, or both. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in this population range from 30–59 percent.

Despite the prevalence of trauma, women were traditionally not considered to be as much at risk for substance misuse because “nice women” don’t drink. “Alcoholism” used to be mostly a male thing, but things have changed quite a bit. “Between 1999 and 2008, the number of inebriated women who had to be hospitalized increased by 52 percent,” Bader said. “59 percent of new cannabis users are women.”

Typically, women are increasing heroin use at a faster rate than men but are decreasing nonmedical prescription opioid use at a slower rate than men. Women struggle for gender-specific reasons. “We’re fighting physical and mental exhaustion, we are trying to cope with pain, we self-treat mental health problems, and we are trying to control weight,” explained Bader.

Contrary to traditional notions, women are just as likely as men to develop a SUD. Among other things, “women are more susceptible to cravings and relapse, more likely to have panic attacks, anxiety, or depression, more likely to go to the emergency department or die from an overdose, and more sensitive to the effects of some drugs.”

Addiction professionals have long known that women tend to display a “telescoping” effect: they typically start with lower levels of substances but end up escalating use to a higher degree than men. Like men, many women suffer from mood disorders that are the driving force behind their substance misuse.

“The most important factor to consider in the treatment of addiction in women is unresolved trauma, though,” said Bader. “Activated trauma and shame can flood the whole body and take the individual offline. It’s a state not easily tolerated while sober. That’s why so many women misuse substances.”

Relationships often play a crucial role. A woman’s use is heavily influenced by her partner, and intimate partner violence is common in women with substance use issues. “Sexual trauma both prior to and during active use is also common,” Bader said.

Harmony Foundation has long utilized a holistic approach to healing trauma and addiction. All staff at Harmony have been trained in trauma-informed care. Realizing that addiction is a biopsychosocial and spiritual disease, Harmony’s treatment program promotes physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, empowering patients to embark upon a lifelong journey of recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, or you have questions about our programs and workshops, call us today at (970) 432-8075 to get the help needed as soon as possible. Our experienced staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.