Young woman in substance abuse treatment for women

Women Have Special Needs in Substance Abuse Treatment

Gender differences come into play when it comes to treatment for substance abuse. Just as each patient’s needs are unique, and a treatment program must be tailored to address those particular needs, attention also must be paid to the special needs of women. What works for men in treatment doesn’t always work the same way for women. Substance abuse treatment for women needs to be examined more closely.

Do you need to learn more about a women’s addiction treatment center? Call us today at 844.875.5609.

What Is the Purpose of Gender-Responsive Treatment?

Gender is an important clinical issue in substance abuse treatment for women. There are gender differences in the development and pattern of substance use disorders and differences in treatment approaches. Researchers note that these differences begin with early risk factors for substance use and continue throughout treatment and recovery. Core principles of gender-responsive treatment for substance abuse include:

Recognizing the role and significance of personal relationships in women’s lives.

  • Addressing the unique health concerns of women
  • Acknowledging the importance and role of socioeconomic issues and differences among women
  • Promoting cultural competency that is specific to women
  • Endorsing a developmental perspective
  • Attending to the relevance and presence of various caregiver roles that women assume throughout their lives
  • Recognizing that culturally-ascribed roles and gender expectations affect society’s attitudes toward women with substance abuse
  • Adopting a trauma-informed perspective
  • Using a strengths-based treatment model for women
  • Incorporating an integrated and multidisciplinary treatment approach for women
  • Maintaining a gender-responsive treatment environment across all settings
  • Supporting development of gender competency specific to the issues of women

What Triggers Substance Use In Women?

Many factors influence the reasons for women’s initiation of substance use. Some of these factors are more prevalent for women than for men. Stress, negative affect, and relationships often precipitate substance use for women. Women are often introduced to substance use by a boyfriend, family member or close friend. And, although genetics may be a significant risk factor in women’s substance abuse, more evidence points to a familial influence—a combination of the effects of environment and genetics. Parental alcohol use increases the prevalence of alcohol use disorders among women by at least 50%.


Women are particularly affected by relationships, the status of their relationships, and the effects of substance abuse by a partner. In fact, women who abuse substances are likely to have a partner who is also a substance abuser. Some women think of shared drug use as a means of communicating and/or connecting with their partners. Drug use rituals, such as sharing needles, are often initiated by males. These put women at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis through needle-sharing practices and by having unprotected sex with males who inject drugs.

The status of a relationship also affects substance use and potential abuse. Married women are more protected against this risk, but separated, divorced, or never-married women are at greater risk. Relationships also influence women throughout treatment and recovery.

Other Risk Factors

Among the other risk factors associated with substance use and abuse are sensation-seeking, anxiety and depression, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress, and difficulty in regulating effect. Women who have a substance use disorder often have a history of trauma, including interpersonal and childhood sexual abuse.

Sociocultural issues affect risk for substance use and abuse. These include experiences of discrimination, degree of acculturation, and socioeconomic status. Not only are these risk factors prominent from the beginning of substance use, but they continue to influence women’s substance use, health status, help-seeking behavior, and access to treatment.

Women’s Patterns of Substance Use

Research identifies six patterns of women’s substance use:

  1. The gender gap is narrowing across ethnicities for substance use, particularly among young women.
  2. Women are more likely to be initiated to substance use through a significant relationship, while marriage plays a protective role.
  3. Women accelerate to injecting drugs faster than men and the rituals and high-risk behavior surrounding substance use is directly influenced by their significant relationships.
  4. The earlier patterns of use for women (initiation age, amount, and frequency), are positively associated with higher risks of dependency.
  5. Women are more likely to alter their substance use pattern in response to their caregiver responsibilities.
  6. Women progress faster from initiation of use to developing substance-related adverse consequences.

While more men than women are substance abusers, women are as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder after initiation. Pregnant women are more likely to abstain or reduce use during pregnancy, but continued use is associated with many issues, such as less prenatal care to the potentially irreparable harm to the child from fetal exposure. Women entering treatment most often cite drug use as the main reason for admission.

Physiological Effects of Substance Use on Women

Women develop substance use disorders faster than men. Factors that influence or compound the physiological effects of drug and alcohol use on women include co-occurring conditions, health disparity, aging, developmental issues, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Women both suffer more complications and severe problems from alcohol use than men, and these develop more rapidly. This process is called “telescoping.”

Complications include hypertension and other cardiac-related diseases, liver disease and damage to other organs, breast and other cancers, neurological and cognitive effects, reproductive consequences, and greater susceptibility to HIV/AIDs, hepatitis and other infections and infectious diseases. Abuse of substances such as stimulants, opioids, and some prescription and over-the-counter drugs cause adverse effects on the woman’s menstrual cycle, gastrointestinal, cardiac, and neuromuscular systems, among others.

Alcohol and drug use by pregnant women is associated with numerous complications: spontaneous abortion, prematurity, low birth weight, fetal abnormities, neonatal abstinence syndrome, and premature separation of the placenta from the uterine wall. Considerable research on alcohol use and pregnant women points out the significant risk of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which involves growth retardation, central nervous system and neurodevelopmental abnormalities, and craniofacial abnormalities.

Women’s Treatment Challenges

Women face a number of challenges or obstacles to accessing treatment. These include the stigma of substance abuse, fear of loss of child custody, few resources for women with children, lack of collaboration among social service systems, lack of culturally congruent programming, and limited options for pregnant women.

Placing women in treatment for substance abuse also involves not only her needs and severity of the disorder, but also availability of treatment facilities in the area, her financial situation, and available healthcare coverage. Therefore, treatment services for women have to address women’s specific needs, pregnant women, and women with children—such as life skills, family- and child-related treatment services, medical and mental health services, comprehensive and coordinated case management, and health promotion.

Get Help Today With Women’s Addiction Treatment at Promises Behavioral Health

Promises Behavioral Health provides comprehensive and customized women’s addiction treatment programs to meet the individual needs of each woman. Our experienced team of certified professionals offers a variety of therapies, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Family counseling
  • Holistic treatments such as yoga and art therapy
  • Intensive outpatient treatment
  • Residential and inpatient treatment
  • Medically managed intensive inpatient treatment
  • Inpatient detox

Our goal is to provide the highest standard of care in a safe and comfortable environment. With our help, women can find hope and support as they take steps toward recovery. Call us today at 844.875.5609 to get started.

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