How to Understand the Connection Between Women and Addiction


Flowers on a blue background saying "hope for women in addiction."
Hope exists for women in addiction.

Most of the research that was conducted in the past revolved around men and their addictions. Unfortunately, there’s been a significant uptick in women and addiction. Therefore, this is a relatively new area of study as many medical practitioners are recognizing the biological and psychological differences between men and women. They’re also starting to see that these differences have a lot to do with how addiction prevails, presents itself, is comorbid with other disorders, and thus the need for different treatment modalities. 

Differences in the Substances Abused

Even today most studies still show that more men are in addiction than women. In 2015, researchers conducted a survey entitled the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). This study looked at over 40,000 adults and found that 14% of men but only 7% of women were diagnosed. So, there are twice as many men as there are women and addiction.

There’s an even greater discrepancy between the genders when it comes to alcohol. Here three times as many men abused alcohol (7%) than did women (3%). 

The one area in which men, women, and addiction are about equal is the rate at which they abuse prescription drugs. 

Cherry tree blossoms with the quote "Women there is hope for your addiction."
Women, there is hope for your addiction.

Differences in How Substance Abuse Begins

The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CAST) collaborated with The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to create the treatment protocols that are now used as guidelines for treatment.  Protocol (TIP) 51 specifically addresses women and addiction. It states a few key differences between men, women, and addiction, including:

  • Personal relationships are much more influential on women than on men regarding substance abuse. Most women who develop an addiction were first introduced to the substance by a family member, romantic partner, or close friend. Some studies even show that if a parent is an alcoholic, women are at least 50% more likely to abuse alcohol themselves. These women are also more likely to have partners who have an addiction and engage in high-risk behaviors (e.g., sharing needles).
  • Women are more responsive to the environment they’re living in. When they live in a chaotic environment where there’s violence and arguing they’re more likely to become addicted to a substance that helps them soothe themselves. Depending on their responsibilities as a caregiver women tend to alter their pattern of use as well.
  • Women and addiction are different because women frequently abuse substances as a way of self-medicating for past traumas, especially childhood sexual abuse. Women who experience sexual trauma in adulthood are at a similar risk. Unfortunately, instead of helping women take better care of themselves, addiction places women at a higher risk for repeated victimization. 
  • Substance abuse escalates faster in women. Earlier patterns of use (e.g., the amount used, frequency abused) and their age when they first started abusing a substance will also lead to a greater likelihood of dependency. Unfortunately, this escalated risk also quickly progresses to women experiencing more addiction-related consequences (e.g., medical, psychiatric, social) than men.

Differences in Comorbidities

TIP 51 also states that with women and addiction there’s a greater likelihood of co-occurring conditions (e.g., eating disorders, depression, PTSD, anxiety) than with men. One study found that women who suffer from major depressive episodes are over 7 times more likely to become addicted to a substance, whereas there wasn’t any higher risk for men.

Cherry blossoms on a tree branch next to the quote "Women there is hope for your addiction."
Women, there is hope for your addiction.

Differences in Treatment

There’s a section in TIP 51 entitled “Core Principles of Gender-Responsive Treatment.” According to these treatment guidelines that were established specifically for women and addiction, it’s important to:

  • Recognize the role and significance personal relationships play in women’s lives
  • Acknowledge how socioeconomic differences between men and women exist
  • Adopt a trauma-informed perspective of women and addiction

By understanding the differences that gender roles play in addiction, we can be more effective in treating them. If you have an addiction, I hope you’ll get the help you need. Once you’re sober, I’m here to be that shoulder for you. Having a support system is vital and I look forward to walking through this journey with you.