Addiction is an equal-opportunity offender. It doesn’t single out race, religion or gender. Yet for some women, the female substance abuse stigma sometimes can be so strong that it prevents them from seeking help. In a world where much of the research on addiction is focused on men, it is more important than ever for women to break through the barriers and overcome the shame of addiction.
A Rapidly Changing Substance Abuse Narrative
Throughout history, men have had higher reported incidences of substance abuse and dependence. This may be due, in part, to the fact that most of the early research on addiction was focused on males. After 1990, U.S. agencies began requiring more women to be enrolled in federally funded studies. Since that time, we have learned that women are rapidly closing the gap on addiction statistics, becoming the fastest-growing segment for substance abuse in the United States.,,
- 5.3 million adult women in the U.S. abuse or are dependent on alcohol
- Women were binge drinking 36 percent more in 2012 than 10 years’ prior
- More than 2.5 million women abuse or are dependent on illegal drugs
- More than 6,600 women died from overdosing on prescription painkillers in 2010 – a 400 percent increase over the total in 1999.
- Women are up to 48 percent more likely than men to be prescribed a narcotic or anti-anxiety medications
- 9.8 percent of all U.S. adult men have alcohol use disorder (AUD) compared to only 5.3 percent of women.
- Men are more likely to engage in binge drinking and to die from the alcohol-related cause
- Men are more likely than women to use illicit drugs and have more emergency department visits or overdose deaths
- 32.6 percent of adult men reported having five or more drinks in one day at least once in the past year, compared to 17.4 percent of women
- 12.8 percent of men aged 12 or older report illegal drug use as opposed to 7.3 percent of women
- 10.9 percent of men reported using marijuana compared to 6 percent of women; hallucinogen use was reported by 0.6 percent of men vs. 0.3 percent of women
There is no shortage of explanations as to what accounts for these gender-based differences. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), for instance, points to males being introduced to alcohol and drugs at an earlier age and having more opportunities. That same study showed that once initiated into drug use, males and females are equally likely to continue with it. Others suggest that the biological duty of pregnancy and motherhood contributes to the differences in substance abuse between genders. But what often goes unsaid or less researched is the lasting stigma that has been placed on females with addiction.
Unique Risk Factors for Women
Men and women often take different routes to substance abuse and addiction. For one, women have significantly higher lifetime rates of mood and anxiety disorders than their male counterparts. Anxiety, depression and other disorders like these are frequently precursors to the initiation of substance abuse as a means of self-medication.
Another risk factor is the high susceptibility to trauma among females. When many think of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s very common for them to associate it with military members. But women are also highly likely to encounter trauma as a result of abuse. One study found that among women seeking treatment for substance abuse, rates of physical or sexual abuse range from 55 percent to 99 percent. In both men and women, substance abuse and PTSD co-occur in as many as 50 percent of cases.
The Female Substance Abuse Stigma stems from the problem of perception
One long-perpetuated stereotype about an intoxicated man is that he’s the life of the party, whereas a woman in the same state is seen as a “hot mess.” A man with a drinking or drug problem must be under a lot of pressure at work. The woman, on the other hand, can’t deal with her problems and should get it together. This double standard extends to both pop culture and real life, leaving a damaging impact on the female struggling with addiction.
There is still a significant stigma attached to women who struggle with alcohol or drugs, particularly for those who are pregnant or have children. Where does this stigma come from?
Seeking treatment means you have an addiction
Many women who struggle with addiction choose not to seek treatment, partly because they don’t want to be labeled. Often, hitting rock-bottom is what causes a substance abuser in this situation to seek treatment, but by this point, the condition is usually extremely severe.
Researchers have noted that the stigma of addiction is more severe for women than men because of a woman’s “place” in society. As those who bear and care for children, women are expected to uphold the moral values of society.
Unlike men, women who struggle with addiction are often labeled sexually promiscuous, and worse, are frequently thought to be prostitutes.
Failure to Pursue Treatment
The potential disapproval of family, friends and employers keeps many women away from treatment entirely, and the fear of losing custody of their children is an even more powerful deterrent. Women also face more practical barriers to treatment, such as poverty, with more than one in seven women in the country living below the poverty line. Treatment can be expensive and time intensive with therapy sessions, group meetings and rehab programs. Other reasons for not getting help include:
- Fear or embarrassment of admitting their struggle with addiction, while hiding their use is easier
- Fear of losing custody of their children or being separated from their families
- Self-perceived substance use as a social habit, rather than a life-disrupting addiction
Removing the female substance abuse stigma requires removing shame and guilt from the addiction equation. Women need to feel empowered enough to allow themselves to make a realistic assessment of their substance abuse and ultimately take the necessary steps to get help. When a woman has to hide her substance abuse, it not only makes her less likely to seek treatment, but it also makes those around her less likely to recognize there’s a problem. Untreated substance use disorders only worsen over time.
Behavioral Wellness and Recovery is staffed with compassionate addiction care therapists and medical staff who understand the unique challenges women face during and after rehab. We provide treatment in a welcoming, judgment-free atmosphere along the backdrop of our beautiful West Chester, PA scenery. If you’re a woman with a substance abuse issue, or you know one who is battling addiction, we invite you to contact us today at 800-683-4457 to learn about our many rehab programs and how we can help.
 Drinking Patterns in US Counties From 2002 to 2012. American Public Health Association. 2015.
Behavioral Wellness & Recovery, located in West Chester, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia & Lancaster, PA