While men are more likely to drink to excess, display problem drinking behaviors, and receive diagnoses of alcohol use disorder, women frequently struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Women are at a greater risk for experiencing serious side effects associated with alcohol consumption. Women’s bodies absorb alcohol more rapidly and experience more immediate effects from intoxication than men. Women are at greater risk while they are drunk, and at greater risk for chronic health problems, including cancer, due to drinking. In addition, women who are pregnant and struggling with an alcohol use disorder are at risk of harming their babies.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2.5 percent of women in the past year met the diagnostic criteria for an AUD. About 10 percent of pregnant women drink alcohol despite the dangers to them and their child. Because of how women are affected by problem drinking or alcohol dependence, women struggling with alcohol abuse have death rates that are between 50 and 100 times higher than men. They also experience demographic-specific problems, such as family caretaking, sexual assault and intimate partner abuse, and higher rates of mental illness, which require specific treatment focuses.
It is important that women have access to treatment, specifically gender-specific treatment if that suits their needs better. Unfortunately, women’s biology and psychology are not as thoroughly researched in terms of addiction treatment for AUD, so knowing which programs will best suit women compared to men can be tricky. The addiction treatment field is learning more about how women need support, medication, and social assistance, and the unique needs of women in recovery. As a result, more treatment programs are dedicated to serving women.
Women-Only Treatment Programs
In general, women and men respond well to the same kinds of addiction treatment, including:
- Medication like naltrexone to ease cravings and maintain sobriety
- Detox to safely end physical dependence on alcohol
- Therapy through a comprehensive rehabilitation program
- Ongoing social support from therapists and peer groups after rehab
However, women’s treatment programs are very important because they respond to specific needs among women. Women with children may need financial assistance, housing, and childcare. Women who have suffered trauma, especially because of men, will benefit from being in an environment without men or social pressures associated with men. Women are more likely to struggle with eating disorders, and alcohol treatment that takes this into consideration will benefit women.
Women in addiction treatment may benefit from being in an environment without men, and they may also benefit more from complementary treatments like meditation, yoga, herbal supplements, and other complementary therapies. Women’s hormones are different, too, so treatments that focus on pregnant women, women undergoing menopause, or women experiencing chronic illnesses like arthritis can be beneficial aspects of treatment programs.
Many women self-report experiencing better care and treatment in women-focused programs, though women can likely benefit from any program that utilizes evidence-based treatment approaches. A study found that women greatly benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the leading form of evidence-based therapy currently in use.
The History of Women-Specific Alcohol Treatment
The modern substance abuse treatment movement did not recognize any separation of men’s and women’s treatment programs. However, with the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, a greater push to understand the social inequalities and biological differences between genders spurred many social changes in employment, healthcare, family structure, and more. Substance abuse treatment has since started to change to provide greater support for specific needs of specific communities, including women.
Women are generally less likely than men to seek treatment for substance abuse, including AUD. Self-reported evidence suggests that fear of ostracism from their families, losing their children, and losing their marriages or partnerships factored in. In addition, concerns over potential sexual deviancy and questions about their fitness as employees are all associated with a lower likelihood to seek treatment for AUD.
Recently, scientists have found a closing gap in alcohol abuse between the genders. It is becoming more socially acceptable for women to consume larger amounts of alcohol. However, other social changes, including better support for women with children, trauma survivors, or treatment of co-occurring disorders, are not adjusting as rapidly to more women developing alcohol dependence or addiction.
Unique Needs Women Face When Seeking Treatment
Focusing AUD treatment on women exclusively entails addressing social and economic issues that are specific to women. Some issues that women face more than men include:
- Caretaking roles within the family
- Abuse by intimate partners
- Exposure to trauma
- More intense cravings
- Higher rates of anxiety or depression
- Eating disorders
Women face different barriers to treatment than men, leading them to seek different kinds of treatment or to get help from different providers. Women are more likely to ask for help from their primary care physician or a therapist rather than a specific treatment facility. Women are also more likely to seek treatment after experiencing acute problems – like blacking out, attempting suicide, or suffering abuse – compared to men, but men are more likely to seek treatment earlier in the progress of their condition.
Barriers to treatment experienced more often by women compared to men include:
- More likely to have a negative experience with a doctor or therapist
- Economic hurdles
- Family responsibilities interfering with regular treatment times
- Greater need for social assistance, including childcare, housing, transportation, and financial aid
- Shame or embarrassment due to their addiction
- Anxiety or depression, which also may go undiagnosed and therefore untreated
The progress of women’s AUD has similar symptoms, but women’s addictions tend to progress faster than men’s addictions. Although women consume less alcohol on average, drink less per occasion, drink less frequently, and statistically are less likely to develop alcohol abuse problems compared to men, when a woman does develop an AUD, signs and symptoms from alcohol abuse are more likely to escalate faster. They are more likely to develop physical dependence and health problems faster than men. Because women are generally paid less and employed in lower-paying jobs compared to men, women are also more likely to experience financial and social consequences due to their addiction.
Brain chemistry changes are more significant in women than men, so women have different alcohol detox needs and a greater need for mental health treatment compared to men who struggle with AUD. Women’s brains are more likely to reduce the amount of serotonin produced when the individual abuses alcohol, meaning that, when alcohol is not affecting the brain, the woman is more likely to experience low mood or suicidal ideation.