Gender Specific Issues for Women in Addiction Treatment

Contributor: Marie Tueller, MEd, LAC, Canyon Crossing Recovery, CCR-OTC

Woman having a conversation with her therapist on couch in officeThe differences between services and programming provided for men and women in substance abuse treatment is an ever-growing issue that has gained increasing attention over the past decade. Historically, addiction has been considered primarily a male issue, and many treatment modalities continue to base their approach upon research drawn from predominantly male populations.

The recent focus of the unique needs of women who suffer from chemical dependency and related issues has highlighted important gender differences in the biology, etiology, and the social and cultural factors that characterize the treatment seeking female population, in addition to the predominance of comorbid psychiatric conditions that have important treatment implications for women (1).

The Uniqueness of Women

Women with substance use disorders and behavioral addictions possess unique biopsychosocial needs that are important factors to be considered when maximizing the potential for success and long-term recovery.

Specifically, women possess distinctive developmental, physiological, and sociocultural needs that must be integrated when creating effective treatment plans and clinical strategies while coordinating multidisciplinary services. If such gender specific needs are left unaddressed treatment is likely to be less effective.

Attractive happy woman joying in beautiful summer day.In fact, research continues to demonstrate that it is imperative for these gender responsive treatment approaches to be applied in order to yield the highest outcomes of success (2).

Research into gender specific treatment and gender sensitive approaches have revealed many promising strategies and best practices that are currently implemented at the leading women’s treatment centers across the country.

Gender specific treatment approaches incorporate a variety of themes, techniques, and approaches that acknowledge the broad spectrum of gender roles, cultural contexts including:

  • Medical
  • Familial
  • Financial
  • Educational
  • Occupational
  • Emotional influences

This includes the unique biopsychosocial needs that characterize common issues and challenges faced by women seeking substance abuse treatment.

Gender Specific Themes

These gender specific themes are intimately involved in women’s addiction treatment and must be addressed in order to assist treatment seeking women in mastering the tools required to avoid gender specific relapse risk factors.

An especially prevalent treatment consideration is the fact that a high proportion of women with addiction and chemical dependency issues have histories of trauma including childhood and adult sexual abuse, physical assault, neglect, emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse, and domestic violence (2).

Woman on rocky beachThe prevalence of trauma and trauma related disorders undoubtedly shapes the nature of effective treatment approaches and interventions applied to women in an addiction treatment setting.

Additional gender related issues that are also shaping the development of gender specific programming include the subjective experiences of a majority of female clients including an increased prevalence of feelings of guilt and shame, low self-esteem and self-efficacy, gender based discrimination, and further stigmatization faced by racial minorities, sexual minorities, the elderly, disabled, and low socioeconomic status among women.

It is imperative that the substance abuse treatment system seek to remove and/or lower gender based barriers to successful treatment by offering clients tools and resources to cope with unique gender based issues, collaborating with community support, resources, and social services while promoting cultural competence related to women among treatment providers.

Women are more likely to encounter barriers and challenges throughout their treatment episodes than their male counterparts due to familial roles, discrimination, trauma and abuse, cultural gender based expectations, socioeconomic hardships, and an increased prevalence of comorbid disorders often serious in nature causing significant impairment and intensified complications in the management of symptoms and the achievement of stabilization (3).

Not Just a Male Issue

Research on gender specific treatment and programming shows promising results. Best practices for gender specific treatment indicates that enhanced awareness, increased competence through training and education, and integration of the unique needs, barriers, and challenges faced by women seeking addiction treatment can begin to offer women the services necessary for recovery.

Young Happy Woman SucceedingAddiction is no longer a male issue, and to continue to apply male-based treatment modalities to a female population, not only does a disservice to the countless women seeking treatment for a terminal illness but perpetuates injustice and the alienation of invaluable members of our families, our communities, and our society as a whole.

When effectively addressed through treatment planning, clinical interventions, and program development, gender specific addiction treatment uniquely tailored to women’s issues, increases the likelihood of success and long-term recovery for our daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, and female loved ones so desperately seeking the help that they deserve.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What has been your experience with gender based treatment for addiction?

Marie TuellerCanyon Crossing Recovery: As a pioneering program in gender specific treatment, Canyon Crossing Recovery engages in ongoing examination of evidence based treatment approaches through rigorous evaluation of overall effectiveness of gender sensitive clinical approaches so that women can receive the highest quality of gender specific care currently available in the addiction treatment arena.

A primary aspect of this approach includes equipping female clients with positive esteem and self-efficacy, development of coping mechanisms and education to increase volition and role performance while offering coaching on gender specific issues and life skills required to achieve sustainable recovery.

We firmly believe in empowering our clients to navigate the complexities of life with integrity and grace through in depth clinical work that addresses personal, relational, and cultural issues uniquely related to the female recovery process.

1. Kathleen, T. B. & Carrie, L. R. (1999). Gender differences in substance use disorders.
Psychiatric Clinics of North America 22(1): 241-252. Retrieved October 14, 2014.
2. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment (2009). Addressing the
specific needs of women. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration (US). Available from: Retrieved October
14, 2015.
3. Brady, K. T., & Ashley, O. S. (2005). Women in Substance Abuse Treatment: Results From
the Alcohol and Drug Services Study (ADSS). DHHS Pub. No. SMA 04-3968, Analytic
Series A-26. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration, Office of Applied Studies.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 6, 2015
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