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    Gender Differences in Substance Use, Treatment and Recovery

    Addiction is a living nightmare for both men and women. However, there are real differences in the development of substance use disorders in men and women, how they experience the consequences of their substance use, and their particular needs for treatment and ongoing recovery. Below, take a look at the major differences between men and women with substance use disorders, and the importance of gender-specific addiction services.


    Today, we know that there are a number of biological differences between men and women that impact the development of addiction. Women develop alcohol-related dependence faster and with a lower amount than men do. This is because women generally have more body fat and a lower volume of body water with which to dilute alcohol. Women also develop health-related problems due to substance use, such as breast cancer and nerve damage, faster than men do.

    Psychologically speaking, women are more likely than men to have co-occurring substance use and mental health conditions. Women more often meet diagnostic criteria for mood disorders, depression, agoraphobia, PTSD, anxiety and eating disorders. They are also more likely to have been sexually or physically abused, and more likely to have experienced interpersonal violence. Rates for sexual abuse in childhood and adulthood are reportedly higher in women than for men. These experiences can have a large impact on the types of services they require during their recovery. This includes clinically sound, trauma-informed programming that treats addiction alongside other mental health conditions. Trauma-specific intervention programs generally recognize the interrelation between trauma and symptoms of trauma, such as substance use, eating disorders, depression and anxiety.

    Perhaps most importantly, we know that women are more stigmatized for their substance use conditions. They report higher feelings of guilt and shame surrounding their substance use. These feelings are often related to the gender-specific roles often associated with caregiving. Many women also tend to have one parent who has also experienced problems with substance use, which may factor into the development of addiction.

    If you’re looking for treatment for your daughter, niece, granddaughter or another woman in your life, consider services that are tailored to women’s needs and obstacles they experience. Services for women in substance abuse treatment should include women-only programming (due to trauma history and other issues), strong female leaders and providers, peer support, cultural training and cultural programming that addresses the unique needs of women in treatment.

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    Regardless of age or race, men use alcohol and drugs more frequently and in greater quantities than do women. Additionally, they often start using substances for different reasons than do women. For many young men, male institutions and social rites of passage, such as sports and fraternities, encourage the use of alcohol. Men generally start binge drinking at an earlier age than do women. Binge drinking is also more prevalent in men and is more likely to result in alcohol-related problems. en are therefore five times more likely than women to develop a substance use disorder.

    Despite being less likely than women to speak on the topic, many men have significant histories of childhood physical and sexual abuse or current victimization by domestic partners. They are more likely to die from suicide, despite being less likely to attempt it. They often feel excessive amounts of shame when dealing with emotional and substance use problems, making it less likely that they will seek out medical or behavioral health counseling for their problems. Once in treatment, men often struggle with talking about their emotions and how to deal with them appropriately.

    If you are looking for treatment for your son, nephew, grandson or another man in your life, consider programming that addresses effective communication training, sexual identity issues and skills for managing difficult emotions. Also look for mental health services that address sexual issues, PTSD and anger management. Just like with women, all-male group therapy has proven to be highly effective, and structured activities with other men can provide necessary peer support. Individual therapy with a positive male role model as well as female clinicians who model appropriate female-male relationships are also beneficial in the recovery process.

    Why Gender-Specific Programming Works

    There is a significant disparity in substance use disorder rates between men and women. These differences range from greater access and opportunities for use, to increased social pressure and, possibly, a greater genetic disposition to use substances. Men and women may find that they benefit, in critical ways, from having gender-specific programs available to them. Men and women do better in treatment and continued care when they have treatment customized to meet their particular needs.

    If your child is transgender or gender non-conforming, it is even more important to find programming that is LGBTQIA-sensitive and trauma-informed.

    Recovery and positive clinical outcomes are possible with more specialized care.