The first studies to focus on drug use specifically in women occurred in the 1980s; at least a decade after many studies had already been performed on drug use in men.
Female drug use had been pushed under the rug for years, mostly because drug use and addiction is less prevalent in women than it is in men. Needless to say though, drug use still exists among women, and often comes with its own set of consequences different from those faced by men. Women have higher rates of using certain drugs than men, as well as varied ways of becoming addicted, and recovering from the addiction afterwards.
One of the most prominent differences between male and female drug usage is the abuse of prescription drugs and opioids. While prescription painkiller abuse is relatively the same among all adults under 65, “three times more women than men reported prescription pain relievers as their primary drug of abuse,” among adults older than 65 in rehab facilities. Teenage girls also have a higher risk of abusing prescription drugs than their male counterparts — this can go back to the fact that women are drastically more at risk for chronic pain conditions than men. Women have two-three times higher rates of rheumatoid arthritis than men, twice the risk of developing multiple sclerosis, and “are four times more likely to have chronic fatigue syndrome.” Women are also more susceptible to mental illness, which heightens the chances of substance abuse.
There’s also a difference between how quickly men and women become addicted to substances. Women experience an effect called “telescoping”; their reliance on drugs increases rapidly, their addiction begins sooner, and their dosages are more extreme, in comparison to men. Telescoping prompts women to enter rehab sooner than men, often “with a more severe clinical profile (eg, more medical, behavioral, psychological, and social problems).” After leaving treatment, women are at increased risk for relapse, and often experience even more severe relapses than men in recovery.
This is especially true for women who abuse stimulants, such as cocaine and amphetamines. Of the 1.8 million cocaine users in the US, 39.5% are female. Women’s reactions to stimulants vary depending on when they take the drug during their cycle, and can sometimes be intensified due to hormone levels. Women also tend to suffer more severe health issues from taking stimulants than men, again due to hormonal and sometimes societal and economic differences.
While many women seek help sooner than men due to the severeness of their addictions, still more fear seeking treatment because of the stigma that comes with being a mother addicted to drugs. Lack of affordable childcare is a huge barrier to a mother’s ability to enter rehab. Mothers who do enter often do so to keep custody of their children, and are more likely to stay on track with their treatment plan if they are still able to care for their families. Over twice the amount of women than men have their treatments paid for by public insurance plans, and only 18% of women “self-pay” for rehab in comparison to men’s 26%. This shows the amount of women forced to rely on health insurance to cover their treatment costs, and the consequences they could suffer if their insurance plans are not willing to support them. A history of physical and sexual abuse, tragedies common in many women’s lives, has also been correlated with later drug use, and can present yet another barrier for female addicts seeking treatment.
As more research is uncovered about the psychological and physical effects of drugs in women, more gender-specific treatment plans and facilities are being created. Rehabs.com has an extensive list of women-only in- and outpatient rehab centers, and many states have their own more localized lists of facilities or AA/NA meetings to attend. If you or a friend or family member is suffering from addiction, or you’d simply like to know more about how to get help for addiction, check out the resources below.