When it comes to addiction, women have typically been shown to have less instances of substance abuse compared to men. And while it might be tempting to say that this is proof that women have less of an addiction problem, the following facts and statistics might help flesh out the issue a bit further. After all, addiction doesn’t discriminate.
Mental Disorder and Drug Abuse
While severe mental disorders have around the same statistical prevalence in both men and women, there isn’t the same equality when it comes to more common mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints. According to the World Health Organization, women are more commonly the sufferers of these disorders. This statistic is significant for a number of reasons. First, it may indicate that extra attention should be paid on these disorders during the psychological evaluation process while in treatment, for women especially. Not identifying mental disorders during rehabilitation could be the difference between full recovery and total relapse. Second, mental disorders and drug abuse have been shown to often go hand in hand. An astounding 36% of alcohol addicts have a mental disorder and that number rises to 53.1% for individuals with substance use disorders. Beyond that, 1 out of 3 substance abusers have been shown to also have clinical anxiety. This high correlation between addiction and mental disorders along with higher reported drug use among men may indicate that some women may actually under-report substance abuse problems.
Domestic Abuse and Addiction
Domestic violence is another factor that contributes disproportionately to addiction problems in women compared to men. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, there is quite a significant relationship between domestic violence and substance abuse. In fact, substance abuse has been documented in 40% to 60% of domestic abuse cases according to some studies. What’s more, victims of domestic abuse have been shown to be 70% more likely to abuse alcohol. When these trends are applied to the fact that women are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence (85% of women report being victim compared to just 12% of men according to the United States Bureau of Justice), it seems clear that women are at a greater risk of turning to substance abuse because of domestic violence than men.
Alcohol Typically Will Have a More Powerful Effect on Women
The effects of alcohol are usually not the same for men and women. Part of this difference comes strictly from physiology. For instance, women generally weigh less than men. Since alcohol’s effects are dampened by a higher body mass, women will typically need less alcohol to feel the same effects of a heavier man. Another factor at play here is the fat/water makeup of women versus men. Women normally have higher concentrations of fat compared to men but lower levels of water. Due to a lower water concentration, a woman’s body is generally less able to dilute alcohol when compared to a man of similar weight. It has also been reported that women actually contain less of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase in their bodies as well. This enzyme is responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body by as much as 20% before it’s absorbed by the intestines. Having a lower amount, then, is a major contributing factor to why alcohol has a more powerful effect on women.
Average Drug Use is Higher Among Men
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, men on average reported much higher usage and abuse of illicit substances. For example:
- Women over the age of 18 who reported having five or more drinks in one day at least once last year came in at 17.4%. By comparison, 32.6% of men asked the same question responded affirmatively.
- Men 12 years old or older were more likely to report illegal drug abuse (12.8%) than women (7.3%).
- Individual drug statistics show that men report using illicit drugs more than women. For instance, 10.9% of men reported marijuana use compared to 6% of women, 0.8% of men reported using cocaine versus 0.4% of women, and 0.6% of men reported using hallucinogens compared to 0.3% of women.
While these statistics do point to higher instances of use among men, it’s worth noting that the addiction experiences between the sexes vary. Differences between types of drugs taken, dosages of drugs needed to create a high, and the cultural norms regarding which drugs are socially acceptable for men and not women can all contribute to these disproportionate statistics.
Drug Use is Influenced by More Than Just Physical Sex Characteristics
A lot of focus has been placed solely on physical differences regarding addiction’s effects on men and women. And while studying these disparities can be quite valuable when it comes to addiction and treatment research, other factors that also influences addiction are based on gender (cultural expectations for men vs. women) rather than just sex (physical biology). Social acceptance of a drinking woman, for example, has begun to shift dramatically in the U.S. The result is a rise in binge drinking among females. When it comes to seeking treatment especially, it’s been suggested that a variety of factors come into play for women. Some of these might include a fear of losing their children, the shame associated with abandoning the “good wife” perception among friends and family, or the necessity of being there to raise her children rather than in a treatment facility.
Opioid Use is Lower Among Women But is Quickly Growing
Women are less likely than men to abuse prescription pain medication according to a survey conducted by SAMHSA. While this correlates with the general trend of men having reported higher instances of substance abuse, opioid abuse among women is one of the fastest growing addiction trends today. Opioid use in general is increasing at an alarming rate, due in part to over-prescribing and lax safety measures in certain areas. But one group in particular is being affected disproportionately by this trend: women over 50. To put this into perspective, this specific demographic has seen a 450% increase in opioid deaths since 1999. Such statistics show that it’s especially important for women of this age group to be aware of how easy it is to become addicted to these types of substances. Remember, addiction does not discriminate!
Sex Differences with Marijuana Abuse Disorders
One study found that women that have a marijuana use disorder generally have more anxiety disorders and panic attacks than men with the same substance abuse problem. Men, on the other hand, have more antisocial personality disorders and more commonly have other substance abuse problems as well. It’s worth noting, however, that men on average shower significantly higher instances of marijuana usage throughout their lifetime.
Tobacco Cessation Can Be Harder for Women
When it comes to tobacco cessation, women may have a harder time giving up smoking than men. According to a study conducted in 2008 testing the efficacy of nicotine patches among the sexes, researchers found that 20.1% of men maintained abstinence from tobacco 6 months after treatment. Women, on the other hand, only showed a 14.7% quit rate in the same trial. That’s a difference of 5.4% between the sexes. While the exact reason for this disparity has not yet been pinpointed, the study does suggest that women may require additional supplemental medications or treatments for tobacco cessation when compared to men.
Addiction During Pregnancy Can Be Particularly Harmful
Another situation that is particular only to women is pregnancy. During this period, it is especially important to ensure a woman’s body is in good health because she is nourishing the child growing inside her. And just as a mother’s meal goes towards feeding her baby, so too do the drugs she consumes affect her unborn infant. One problem that can result from drug abuse during pregnancy is that the child can become physically addicted to the substance while in the womb. Once he or she is born, however, they may experience symptoms of physical withdrawal, a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). These substances can be anything from opioids and alcohol to tobacco and caffeine. Breast milk has also been shown to contain a variety of chemicals like alcohol and marijuana if the mother is still using. While specifics haven’t been determined about how such chemicals might affect children in the long run, it’s been shown that ingestion of certain chemicals while the brain is still forming (such as in teenagers) can lead to developmental disabilities. Drug use during pregnancy can also result in pregnancy complications. Smoking, for instance, can have an enormous impact on pregnancy, resulting in a range of effects from miscarriage and low birth weight to premature birth, developmental delays, and sudden infant death syndrome. In fact, tobacco use during pregnancy is estimated to have caused over one thousand infant deaths per year from 2005-2009.
Fear of Seeking Treatment During Pregnancy
The issue of substance addiction during pregnancy can also lead to fear of social stigma or possibly even legal consequences for substance addicted mothers. While they may in fact want to get help for their substance dependency, these women may be so afraid of being ridiculed for putting their child in such danger that they avoid treatment all together. They may also think that endangering their child in this way could actually be against the law. As a result, some women in this situation continue their substance abuse while carrying child, sometimes resulting in catastrophic consequences for their baby’s health.
Prostitution and Drug Use Often Go Hand in Hand
Women are more likely than men to resort to prostitution as a way to fund a pre-existing drug habit. In fact, the correlation between female prostitution and drug use is an internationally well-documented trend. In the UK, one study found that as many as 95% of women engaging in prostitution in the UK were heroin or crack users. These statistics are especially important in determining what kinds of counseling and social services should be connected with substance abuse rehabilitation.
Women-Only Treatment Centers Can Be Especially Helpful in Some Cases
A women-only treatment center may be more conducive to recovery for some addiction sufferers. According to a study from Israel, some women may feel a stronger sense of belonging and identity when entering into a women-only treatment center. What’s more, sufferers of domestic violence may have serious psychological trauma from their male partners in their past. As such, some women may feel a heightened sense of security in a women-only facility while undergoing the particularly vulnerable period of substance abuse recovery.
The statistics and facts provided here show that not only are men and women physiologically and psychologically different, but that when it comes to the topic of addiction, not every method works the same between the sexes. As a result, particular attention needs to be paid to the unique differences between men and women when it comes to determining a proper addiction treatment and in addressing both the social and physical effects of substance abuse.