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Substance Abuse Among Women

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Substance Abuse Among Women

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Substance Abuse Among Women

Major US Historical Points

Alcohol and substance abuse, until recently, were considered a predominantly male phenomenon. However, in the last few decades, the number of female drug users has continued to rise. Historically, women using alcohol and other substances have been frowned upon and condemned. Men traditionally had higher rates of substance abuse than women, but researchers suggest that the gap is closing. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 5 percent of women, as compared to 7.7 percent of men, used illicit drugs in the year 2002. Surveys of the 1980s reported a 5:1 male/female ratio of alcohol usage disorders, but the ratio narrowed to approximately 3:1 in a year 2007 survey (Slade, Chapman & Teesson, 2016).

In 2012, approximately 50 percent of women reported current use of alcohol, 20 percent used tobacco products, and more than 13 percent used other drugs (McHugh, Wigderson & Greenfield, 2014). In the same year, out of 41.5 million Americans who reported using illicit drugs, over 42 percent were women. Thirty-three million women used tobacco products and approximately 85.5 million women used alcohol (McHugh, Wigderson & Greenfield, 2014).  Moreover, over 7.6 million women ages 12 and older were estimated to suffer from substance use disorders. In 2013, alcohol abuse and dependence among women increased by 83.7 percent. Furthermore, alcohol use among African Americans increased by 92.8 percent; among the poor, it rose by 65.9 percent (Domonoske, 2017). Studies attempt to understand gender-specific factors, course, and outcome, as well as issues related to treatment with the aim of developing more effective treatment programs for women.

 The reasons for a rise in substance abuse among women is unclear, but studies suggest that it’s due to a combination of social, cultural, and economic factors, as well as the increasing acceptance of female drinking in the society. Use of substances among women is also associated with social consequences. Women describe many reasons for using drugs, which include fighting exhaustion, history of trauma or childhood sexual abuse, coping with pain, controlling weight, and self-treating mental health problems. Obstacles to recovery and treatment that are unique to women (some of these are not exactly unique to women, but would be more pronounced due to gender) include stigmatization, financial issues, fear of losing child custody, and lack of onsite childcare. Marital status, socioeconomic status, trauma or childhood sexual abuse, sexual orientation, and co-occurring mental disorders are some factors that can influence a woman’s likelihood of becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol.

How These Issues Manifest Today

Alcohol is the most common substance that women abuse. In 2011, alcohol was the most frequently reported substance of abuse by women entering rehabilitation centers, approximately 33.3 percent. In the year 2015, 65.4 million women reported using alcohol. After alcohol, other common drugs and substances that women report abusing include heroin (15.3%), marijuana (14.6%), prescription pain relievers (13.8%), and cocaine (9.3%) (White et al., 2015). Women struggle with health issues such as mental disorders, HIV/AIDS, and other infectious diseases as a result of abusing drugs; however, it is hard to enter treatment and seek help (Lazzara, 2018). Shame about alcohol and drug abuse or fear of losing their children keep most women from seeking treatment (Greenfield, Back, Lawson & Brady, 2010).

Women abuse drugs as a way of coping with stressors and maintaining weight, so most are never ready to stop using and get help. Moreover, women are the primary caregivers in society, and the responsibility of childcare could keep them from going to recovery centers (Lazzara, 2016). Women also fear losing the people close to them if they seek help. Women who struggle with substance abuse are more likely to be stigmatized than men. They are often viewed as morally careless, negligent, and sexually promiscuous. In addition, Asian, African American, Hispanic, and Native American women are also constantly experiencing cultural barriers.

Race plays a major role in seeking treatment. African American women cite the providers’ attitudes as a barrier to seeking treatment. Moreover, there is a lack of specialized programs that cater to the unique needs of women, which prevents many women from seeking treatment. In fact, only 41 percent of facilities provide special programs for women (Lazzara, 2016). Many women who abuse substances do not have alternative options for child care, and in case these facilities do not offer onsite child care, the women often place their children’s needs above treatment (Lazzara, 2016). Women are also more likely to be of lower socioeconomic class and not have the money to pay for treatment.

Cultural Practices for Increasing Recovery

Cultural practices can shape the approach to and behavior regarding alcohol and substance abuse. Culture plays a major role in forming the expectations of individuals about potential problems they could face with drug abuse. In order to increase recovery, a society can pride itself in offering valuable information on how the women can seek help for their addiction. Strong cultural, family, and social support systems are necessary and could help the women in the recovery process. Social support can be a very powerful and beneficial force in the recovery process for women who abuse substances. Effective cultural practices and social support shine light on some things that could have contributed to addiction development in the first place, such as shame, secrecy, and isolation.

A society that offers a sense of belonging, inclusion, safety, and security, as well as hope and optimism about the future, could prove essential in helping female addicts. Some cultural practices that could help women in the areas of recovery, stability, confidence and adaptive coping mechanisms include:

  • Providing women with important and valuable information concerning addiction and recovery: for example, telling them about a helpful source about addiction; telling them personal recovery experiences, or sharing a helpful technique to manage cravings.
  • Society should provide necessary resources, such as offering transportation and giving out books about recovery.
  • Society should not judge, despise, or punish women who abuse substances and alcohol, but rather offer emotional support such as empathetic listening, encouragement, understanding, compassion, and shared problem-solving.
  • Offering concrete assistance such as driving them to rehabilitation centers and taking care of their children.
  • Society should have effective social groups that offer several opportunities for sharing, creativity, recreation, joy, and laughter.
  • Without judgment and discrimination, women who abuse substances may feel confident that if they really need help, this help could be available in a social setting.

Special Treatment Considerations for this Special Population.

Substance use and alcohol abuse treatment for women needs to be approached from a different perspective that includes the context of the women’s lives, including her family and support system as well as her social and economic environment. Screening and assessment are critical to the early identification of problematic substance use and substance use disorders. Such screening and assessment interventions implemented in a primary care setting, including general medicine, gynecologic and obstetrics services, and pediatric and adolescent medicine practices are effective for reducing substance use among women, including pregnant women (McHugh, Wigderson & Greenfield, 2014). Screenings may include drug and alcohol screening and screening for co-occurring conditions and disorders, including general mental disorders, eating disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, risk of doing harm to self or others, and history of childhood trauma or interpersonal violence ("Women Have Special Needs in Substance Abuse Treatment", 2010).

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