Benefits of Gender-Specific Addiction Treatment

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For women and men alike, addiction is a living nightmare. Its physical, mental, and emotional effects are almost always devastating. It can quickly drain financial resources, sabotage relationships, and undermine a professional career.

The good news is that recovery from alcohol or drug addiction is possible. Addiction treatment centers offer practical support for those caught in the throes of addiction. With time and skillful therapeutic intervention, the health and well-being of the addicted person can be fully restored. As a result, a new life of sobriety can be enjoyed.  

However, men and women may need very different things for addiction treatment and ongoing recovery to be successful. These differing therapeutic needs reflect significant differences in the development of substance use disorders in men and women. And how the two groups experience the consequences of their substance use.

Do Drugs Affect Men and Women Differently?

Women tend to use and respond to drugs differently than men. Women may also have unique obstacles to effective substance abuse treatment. Such as being unable to find child-care; or being prescribed treatment that has been tested primarily on men.1

Perhaps because of such barriers, women are less likely than men to seek addiction treatment. Women more often seek care in a mental health or primary care setting rather than in a specialized addiction treatment program. And such a choice may contribute to a poorer treatment outcome. 2

To be truly effective, an addiction treatment program must account for how gender differences play a role in addiction and recovery. And the availability of women-only and men-only support groups can be a vital component of a successful recovery. 

Gender-Specific Addiction Treatment

Gender-specific addiction treatment refers to drug and alcohol treatment programs that treat women and men separately. Having separate treatment tracks is a way to take seriously the differences between men and women concerning substance abuse.

While each individual case is unique, there tend to be significant differences between women and men in terms of:  

Gender-specific treatment programs are sensitive to such issues. These treatment programs create a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment that can best address the unique needs of individuals of each gender. 9

How Addiction Affects the Genders Differently

Men and women experience addiction differently. 1 & 3 Some of these differences are rooted in biological differences, while social conditions influence others. 

For instance, women typically begin using alcohol or drugs at lower doses than men. Yet their use of the substance tends to escalate more quickly into addiction. And the type of drug differs for each gender too. Men are more likely than women to engage in marijuana and alcohol use. Whereas women are more likely than men to engage in the non-medical use of prescription drugs.

Men tend to begin using alcohol or drugs because of the physical or social benefits they hope to gain. Such as better concentration, improved sex drive/performance, or increased comfort/charisma in social settings. For women, substance abuse is often associated with abusive relationships or other traumatic experiences. 

Women use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate more often than men. Women may use substances as a temporary escape from the painful emotions related to abuse or victimization. Most women with an alcohol or drug addiction also have a history of substance abuse in their family too. And many begin using the substance because their spouse or partner is.

Differences in Experience with Addiction Treatment Between Men & Women

Men and women also differ in how they present and relate to addiction treatment. Women enter treatment sooner than men after becoming substance dependent, and are typically present with more co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, depression, agoraphobia, PTSD, and eating disorders.

Women also tend to be more susceptible to craving and relapse, which are key phases of the addiction cycle. Women who have stopped using substances relapse under different circumstances than men do. For example, women are more likely to relapse in the presence of a romantic partner.

Gender differences such as these are significant. And they may require specific therapeutic modalities be employed in addiction treatment centers. This effectively supports both men and women in recovering from addiction and maintaining long-term sobriety.

Sex & Gender Differences in Substance Use

General research studies into substance abuse disorder and how it impacts both men and women have found that for virtually every substance, the genders are affected differently. 3 & 10

Men tend to have higher rates of use and dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than women. However, women are just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder. Still, illicit drug use is more likely to result in emergency room visits or overdose deaths for men than women.

Women, on the other hand, develop health-related problems due to substance use (such as breast cancer and nerve damage) faster than men. In regards to specific drugs:

Fewer women than men use marijuana. However, the effects for women who use marijuana can be different than for men. Marijuana impairs spatial memory in women more than men, while men show a greater marijuana-induced high.

Women are more likely to use prescription opioids which leads to addiction. This may be because women are more sensitive to pain than men and more likely to have chronic pain, and thus have access to prescription opioids as painkillers. 

Women are also more likely to misuse prescription opioids to self-medicate for other problems such as anxiety or tension. However, men are more likely to die from opioid overdose.

Women tend to be more vulnerable to the reinforcing (rewarding) effects of stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine. Estrogen possibly being one factor for this increased sensitivity. However, women tend to be more receptive than men to methamphetamine treatment.

Women tend to use smaller amounts of heroin than men do and for a lesser duration. They are also less likely than men to inject it. Most women who inject heroin describe social pressure and sexual partner encouragement as reasons for doing so.

Women are more likely than men to die from overdoses involving medications for mental health conditions, such as antidepressants. Antidepressants and benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety or sleep medications) send more women than men to hospital emergency rooms.

In general, men have higher rates of alcohol use, including binge drinking. However, long-term drinking is more likely to seriously damage a woman’s health. Even if the woman has been drinking less alcohol or for a shorter time.

Women tend to be more quickly affected by alcohol because they typically have more body fat and a lower volume of water.

Gender Differences in Addiction Treatment & Recovery

Perhaps the most noticeable gender difference in drug or alcohol treatment is the lower number of women in treatment facilities. In the United States, only one out of every three addiction center patients are women.

Possible explanations for fewer women in addiction treatment can include:

There are gender differences in the way men and women approach addiction treatment. Men are more likely to be referred to therapy as part of a court’s decision. At the same time, women are more likely to get a referral from healthcare providers or government agencies.

The Benefits of Gender-Specific Treatment

Men and women may have different goals and expectations regarding recovery from substance use disorder. Gender-specific addiction recovery programs can be highly beneficial in light of these substance use differences.6

Gender-specific addiction treatment can provide treatment sensitive to the unique physical, emotional, and relationship issues that women and men face. It can also offer a more comfortable environment that encourages bonding and supports a sense of trust among same-sex clients.

When addiction recoveries have their own gender-specific treatment programs, this can help minimize sexual tension and romantic distractions between (heterosexual) male and female clients. Patients might also feel open to discussing the gender-specific sociocultural pressures that can contribute to substance abuse.

Women's Addiction Treatment Programs

Women recovering from addiction might choose a female-only environment because of the ability to communicate openly about family life, motherhood, sexuality, relationships, and other topics. Women can be vulnerable with their peers in a safe environment. 

Mothers recovering from alcohol or drug addiction can benefit from gender-specific treatment3. With the support of other women clients and healthcare professionals, mothers can openly share what it means to have lived with addiction. Mothers face unique challenges and stigmas when it comes to struggling with addiction.

Women can benefit from the presence of strong female leaders and healthcare providers as role models. In gender-specific treatment, women can receive the loving care and support they need to recover from addiction. Women can empower one another and benefit from a strong support system.

Trauma-Informed Therapies for Women

Often, women-only treatment centers have trauma-informed therapies that can help provide support to recover from abuse. Women who have experienced verbal, physical, or sexual assault by a man may not feel safe discussing in a mixed-gender group. It may be easier for a woman to regain her sense of self-worth and value in a women-only program.

With the help of trauma-specific intervention programs, women can be supported in understanding the links between trauma and symptoms of trauma.7 Such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and substance abuse. 

Men's Addiction Treatment Programs

In contrast to a woman choosing to enter into gender-specific treatment, men might find their unique physiological, psychological, and emotional needs fully met in gender-specific care.

Men can feel comfortable openly discussing male cultural roles and stereotypes. These factors may have contributed to their substance use and affected their path of recovery. For instance, male social rites of passage, such as sports and fraternities, often encourage the use of alcohol or drugs.

Men typically require more time than women to let down their guard and talk about their struggles and feelings. Treatment methods that focus on thought patterns and behaviors can provide a safe entryway into the territory of emotions.

Men who have been the victims of sexual abuse can feel safe talking openly and honestly in receiving gender-specific treatment. Men may be much less likely than women to discuss the topic of abuse. However, many men have histories of childhood sexual and/or physical abuse.

In gender-specific care, men might:

In gender-specific treatment, men are able to build friendships and develop a peer-support network for lasting recovery from addiction. They can empower one another as they cultivate healthy habits and life skills.

Why Gender-Specific Programming Works

Many women and men do well in mixed-gender addiction treatment settings. However, some individuals can benefit in important ways from gender-specific treatment. 7 & 8

Such individuals do better in treatment and after-care customized programs to meet their particular needs. Their recovery, positive clinical outcomes, and stabilized sobriety are possible only with such specialized care.

And for people who are transgender or gender non-conforming, it’s vital to find an addiction treatment program that is LGBTQIA-sensitive. Locating a treatment program designed with gender in mind is a vitally important first step on the road to your recovery.

The First Step on the Road to Recovery

For those struggling with addiction, Pacific Palms Recovery is a great place to take the first step on the road to recovery. Our team of medical professionals and counselors provides effective and affordable drug and alcohol outpatient treatment, relapse prevention, and support for sober living.

Our treatment center offers intensive outpatient programs that will provide you with the tools necessary for recovery. We help patients learn to develop long-term healthy relationships and life skills and live free of drugs and alcohol.

We offer 12-step and non-12-step programs and incorporate many traditional and complementary treatments. Our combination of treatments works to create a unique and effective recovery program.

Our rehabilitation philosophy is based on providing a loving, supportive, and safe environment where you can focus on your personalized recovery program. We are highly involved with each client. Our highly-trained and compassionate staff will guide you through every recovery process step.

Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have. We’d be happy to discuss your situation and what our treatment program can offer in more detail.

References & Resources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2022, May 4. Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use.
  2. Green, Carla A., Gender and Use of Substance Abuse Treatment Services. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  3. Partnership to End Addiction. Gender Differences in Substance Use, Treatment and Recovery. 
  4. National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. (2019). Gender-Specific Treatment.
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Gender and Use of Substance Abuse Treatment Services. Retrieved on 20th September 2019 from
  6. Wingerson, Lois. (2009). Gender Differences Should be Considered in Treatment of Addiction.
  7. SAMHSA. Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women
  8. SAMHSA. Addressing the Specific Behavioral Health Needs of Men.
  9. Grella, Christine. From generic to gender-responsive treatment: changes in social policies, treatment services, and outcomes of women in substance abuse treatment. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 2008 November.
  10. Walter, H., Gutierrez, K., Ramskogler, K. et al. Gender-specific differences in alcoholism: Implications for treatment. Archives of Women’s Mental Health 6, 253–258 (2003).
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