Addiction recovery is tough for anyone, but the challenges faced by women on the road to sobriety can be particularly difficult for a myriad of reasons, from biological to cultural. Although it was once a popular assumption that substance abuse was a man’s problem, a body of scientific research has since proven otherwise. Women, for example, are more likely than men to suffer the scourge of opioid addiction. There are also significant differences in how women and men experience addiction. Besides the hormonal factors, women are at greater risk of social obstacles to treatment, and they often experience more serious medical problems caused by their addictions.
Such uniquely female experiences as menstruation, pregnancy and menopause are major dynamics in the equation, as well as a woman’s greater sensitivity to the psychological effects of drug use and her increased risk of anxiety and depression. Even when women decide to quit smoking cigarettes, a fear of weight gain is often a deterrent. What’s more, science has shown that women are more prone than men to relapse or even die as a result of their addictions. Although women are quicker to seek treatment, even that silver lining has its cloud. Women’s addiction progresses at a faster clip than men’s and the social stigma of an “unfit parent” remains a significant barrier, even when women know they need help.
For these and other reasons, many women suffering addiction are choosing to seek assistance at rehabilitation centers that focus exclusively on women. The benefits can be substantial.
The programs are tailored to specific needs
Women’s addiction programs center on the physical and emotional requirements of women patients and are also designed to recognize the social realities of female addiction. Research shows such gender-specific programs result in greater success—most notably, less addictive behavior—for women after one year of treatment. That also means less of the criminal activity associated with drug abuse. Research is still emerging—amazingly, women were generally excluded from research for years, largely due to social assumptions—but studies have increasingly supported the efficacy of gender-specific treatment, especially for women who are pregnant or have suffered physical or emotional abuse.
A multi-disciplinary approach
Addiction treatment created specifically for women is usually multi-pronged, which means a greater likelihood of finding a path to recovery that works for the individual. This may include one-on-one counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a form of dual-diagnosis treatment that addresses the unique types of depression addicted women may face. Oftentimes such creative approaches as “adventure therapy” and skill-building successfully create new interests that help manage a woman’s self-destructive impulses. The family-based therapy component is geared to wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. Medication assistance may also be an option for handling withdrawal symptoms.
A nurturing and comfortable environment
The sensitive way that many women support and counsel each other is recognized and encouraged. Female-focused treatments favor a decidedly non-defensive approach and help to foster mutual support among women with similar life experiences. Such issues as depression, divorce or the loss of a child can be addressed in an empathetic and understanding way. Female-oriented treatment programs may also help facilitate childcare, job training and parenting classes. The point is not to necessarily separate the men from the women, but to acknowledge their different needs.
A strong emphasis on women’s issues
These kinds of treatment programs are designed to consider many of the difficult issues more commonly associated with women, including eating disorders, post-partem depression and the sometimes-overwhelming burdens of motherhood. Such challenges are less likely to get a fair hearing in a gender-neutral program, where the staff may or may not have the inclination or experience.
Greater acceptance of different sexual orientations
Women who are gay, bisexual or transgender are more likely to find support and understanding in a female-centered addiction program. The common bonds of womanhood help foster more open and honest communication. Frank discussion of life can be very important when discussing the difficult challenges of addiction. It helps enormously when a woman feels free and comfortable to be herself, especially when her addiction is closely tied to other facets of her personal life.
Although the thinking about women and addiction has evolved considerably in recent years, there is still much to learn. The National Institutes of Health has pushed for continued research into the relationship between addiction and gender.