Anita walked out of the treatment facility discouraged. She knew they were trying to help, but the counseling and support groups simply didn’t suit her needs.
She felt the programs didn’t address her personal struggles, and they failed to see how her needs as a woman differed from the needs of the men in treatment. So she decided it was time to find a program designed with women in mind.
Does Gender Play a Role in Recovery?
Anita’s reaction isn’t unreasonable or uncommon. Women have unique needs, and addiction treatment programs must address them to be more effective. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that 15.8 million women over the age of 18 have used an illicit substance in the past year, yet women are less likely than men to seek treatment.
This discrepancy can be attributed to the distinct obstacles women face when seeking treatment. Women, especially mothers, fear being judged and labeled as a “bad parent.” As the primary caregiver, women also have to address child-care needs before entering into treatment.
Other barriers to treatment include social stigma, interpersonal relationships, and socioeconomic factors. These recovery roadblocks can discourage a lot of women, but for those who choose to get help, a gender-specific approach can greatly improve the odds of a successful recovery.
If a program aims to effectively treat women, their approach must be designed to address the gender barriers and a woman’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
- Complex family dynamics: Women may be in unhealthy domestic relationships or struggle with their interactions with parents or siblings. They may also be concerned with childcare while in treatment.
- Higher rates of domestic abuse: Substance abuse is more prevalent among women who experience domestic abuse. Additionally, women in abusive relationships often report being coerced into using substances by their partners.
- High rates of trauma: The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 80 percent of women seeking treatment have a history of trauma.
- Negative, distorted self-images: Women struggling with substance abuse often have low self-esteem and can feel purposeless, lost and unworthy of help.
- Physical changes: As their bodies go through the recovery process, women experience physical changes that can affect their mood and health.
- Unhealthy eating habits: These often escalate into full-blown eating disorders.
Researchers found women respond better when addiction treatment offers solutions that are sensitive to these unique needs. The best programs provide an environment that:
- Promotes safety
- Promotes female empowerment
- Promotes mutual respect
- Encourages autonomy
- Increases self-efficacy
- Increases a woman’s ability to make positive choices
- Increases access to social support
To address the issues behind their substance abuse, program curriculum should focus on helping women:
- Process attachment wounds and past trauma
- Learn about codependency and relationship boundaries
- Form an authentic sense of self
- Express themselves in healthy ways
- Decrease their financial dependence on others
- Learn budgeting skills to build a post-treatment financial foundation
- Increase their self-esteem
By choosing to take a gender-specific approach, more treatment facilities could effectively remove the treatment barriers women face and help them overcome challenges to reach recovery.
Additional Reading: Why Women-Only 12-Step Programs Work Better for Some
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