Substance use disorders affect both men and women, but there are differential effects that occur as a result of substance abuse depending on a person’s gender. Because it is well observed by professional treatment organizations and research organizations, such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), that no singular approach to treatment should be used for everyone, it stands to reason that specific alterations to treatment programs as a result of a person’s gender might result in more effective treatment.
Differences between Men and Women Who Have Alcohol Use Disorder
Men and women often present with different issues when they develop an alcohol use disorder. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the following is true with respect to treatment issues or areas of focus:
- As a general rule, women have lower body weight and more fat than men. This results in their bodies retaining alcohol longer than men’s bodies do, and this results in longer exposure to the untoward effects of alcohol.
- Women have lower levels of enzymes that break down alcohol in the body. Alcohol is absorbed faster into the bloodstream, resulting in a more rapid increase in blood alcohol levels and other effects when women drink the same amount of alcohol as men.
- Because of the above issues, the progression of a substance use disorder in a woman tends to be quicker than it is in a man.
- Women are more likely to use alcohol and drugs as a result of relationship issues than men.
- It is speculated that nearly 70 percent of women with a substance use disorder have experienced some form of sexual abuse, most often in adolescence.
- Women with alcohol use disorders who are pregnant often fear that they will be ostracized or condemned if they get into treatment.
- Women are more likely to be caregivers for children, parents, and others, and this situation results in significant increased stress for women with alcohol use disorders.
Because women are often caretakers for children, they may avoid treatment due to the fear that their children will be taken away from them. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), women with alcohol use disorders are very likely to have co-occurring disorders of mood that can result in a dual diagnosis and specific treatment needs. Having a co-occurring mental health disorder along with an alcohol use disorder significantly complicates treatment for women. These co-occurring issues can include:
- Major depressive disorder
- Persistent depressive disorder (a chronic long-term condition where the individual suffers from low-level depressive symptoms for years)
- Bipolar disorder or cyclothymia (a less intense form of bipolar disorder)
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
Benefits Associated with Women-Only Support Groups
Because there are significant differences between men and women with alcohol use disorders, it is logical that there should be specific support groups for women in the same way that there are support groups for men, for individuals with certain types of co-occurring disorders, and for individuals with different types of substance use disorders. It is important to remember that there is no treatment or recovery program that is applicable to everyone.
- Many support groups were developed based on the needs of male participants, including the original development of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
- The reasons that men and women abuse alcohol are often very different.
- Many of the issues in recovery that occur for men and women can be significantly different.
- Peer support groups are designed to foster the support of individuals with the same or similar experiences. Attempts to make peer support groups more homogeneous can bolster the support.
- Women-only support groups can address many of the cultural issues that women who have alcohol use disorders face, such as being caregivers, attempting to balance work and private life, etc.
- Women with alcohol use disorders often have body image issues, and are often reluctant to discuss these issues with men.
- Women with alcohol use disorders may feel more comfortable discussing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse with other women.
- Women are encouraged to get sponsors in 12-Step groups that are also female. The prospects for finding a suitable sponsor are increased if the support group consists entirely of females.
- Women with co-occurring disorders may feel more comfortable discussing other issues with women in a closed environment.
Becoming involved in a gender-specific support group can bolster one’s recovery and increase the effectiveness of empirically validated alcohol use disorder recovery programs. These programs include the overall components of physician-assisted withdrawal management (medical detox), psychotherapy for alcohol use disorders, medical management, complementary and alternative therapies, etc. However, again, alcohol use disorder treatment is not the same for everyone. Some women may find that they prefer to attend gender-specific support groups for women, have a woman therapist, attend psychotherapy groups for alcohol use disorders and other mental health problems that consist only of female members, etc. Other women may not be inclined to participate in gender-specific support groups. In either of these cases, the preferences of these individuals should be respected.
Specific Women-Only Support Groups
There are a couple options for women who wish to become involved in support groups that cater only to females.
- In many areas, Alcoholics Anonymous offers gender-specific meetings, particularly AA meetings for women. AA has long recognized that women have specific issues to address in recovery from an alcohol use disorder, and it has been very open to promoting gender-specific AA meetings. Specifics about such meetings in various areas can be found on AA’s site.
- Woman for Sobriety, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that is devoted to helping women who wish to become abstinent from alcohol. Women for Sobriety has a long history of helping women in recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders, and it has been in existence for over 40 years. There are weekly in-person meetings as well as online meetings, and the organization offers free literature.
In addition, in specific locations, other support groups may offer gender-specific services, including non-12-Step alternatives like SMART Recovery or Moderation Management. Contact these groups to see if these programs are offered in one’s area, or if it’s possible to start a female-only program in one’s area.
The use of a gender-specific support group for women can greatly enhance an individual’s overall recovery program, help to reduce dropouts in treatment, and even help certain individuals avoid issues with relapse. Because women often experience issues associated with alcohol use disorders quite differently than men do, it is important that the special considerations associated with women who have alcohol use disorders be addressed in treatment. One of the most effective ways to do this, and to get women to open up and share their experiences, is to ensure they are able to attend support groups that cater to their special needs. Women-only support groups are viable options to meet this goal.