Women and Addiction: A Critical Health Issue in the U.S.
By Regina Huelsenbeck, Ph.D.
When you think of addiction, who do you picture?
It’s unlikely you think of a woman, much less a well-educated, mid- to upper-class woman. Yet, this demographic is on the rise in addiction. While rates of substance abuse in women is less than men, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration cites a “shrinking gender gap of substance abuse and dependence.”
In short, this epidemic has become a critical women’s health issue.
Women using an addictive substance often bridge the transition from initial use to dependence more quickly. What starts as a one-time trial introduced by a friend, family member, or significant other, can quickly escalate into a disorder.
Science shows that women become addicted faster than men due to physiological factors. Because women have a higher percent of body fat and lower amounts of enzymes that metabolize alcohol, it stays in the bloodstream longer, causing more damage the brain, cells and organs. Additionally, hormonal fluctuations and the onset of menopause and hormonal swings also alter the body’s responses to substances, particularly alcohol. So, one drink for a male, is more like two for a woman.
These factors, combined with a small body frame and weight, increase the impact substances have on many women. According to a Harvard study, women who abuse alcohol are more prone to acquire liver disease and brain damage in their lifetime. We know there is a scientific link between alcohol and breast cancer. Women are also more likely to abuse alcohol to cope with issues such as depression, anxiety and stress, oftentimes leading to addiction on top of an existing mental illness.
Barriers to Treatment
Women have more barriers to treatment for addiction than men. Oftentimes, due to the pay gap between men and women, there are economic challenges for women to enter rehabilitation programs. And if a woman has children, she is often hesitant to go to treatment or ask for help for fear of losing custody of her children.
We are failing our mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and coworkers.
However, research shows that the success rate for women who go to treatment is as high or in many cases higher than it is for men. Women are able to recover and lead healthy, full lives. There is hope.
The Surgeon General’s groundbreaking report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health indicates “only about 10 percent of people with a substance use disorder receive any type of specialty treatment.” With one in seven individuals in American suffering from substance abuse disorder, the likelihood is very high that someone you love is in the throes of this vicious disease. Often those suffering are women you would never suspect as having a problem.
With this in mind, it’s time to start watching for signs:
- A substance, such as alcohol, is on your mind for more than 4-6 hours a day
- Change in habits, including eating, interest in activities, or withdrawing
- Isolation or secrecy about activities
- Prolonged disruptive sleep patterns
- Increased conversations around alcohol or drugs
Help a woman in your life who is struggling with a substance abuse disorder. Reach out to a doctor, family friend, licensed clinician, or a support help line to take action today.
Dr. Regina Huelsenbeck is the clinical director at Confidential Recovery, an intensive outpatient substance-abuse recovery program. She is a California licensed clinical psychologist.