IRETA Blog: Women Have Been Particularly Affected By the War on Drugs, Part II

“How can we use what we know about women and the War on Drugs to create real drug policy reform?

In our first installment about women, addiction, and the criminal justice system, we shared some stark facts about the impact of “War on Drugs” policies on American women.  Here are two:

  • The number of women in prison has grown by over 800% in the past three decades. The female prison population grew by 832% from 1977 to 2007. The male prison population grew 416% during the same time period.
  • Two thirds of women in prison are there for non-violent offenses, many for drug-related crimes. In the 10-year period from 1999 to 2008, arrests of women for drug violations increased 19%, compared to 10% for men.

This blog addresses three ways to make drug policy reform matter to women.

  • Expand alternatives to incarceration
  • Improve access to treatment for incarcerated women
  • Make prisons and correctional services more gender-responsive

The blog can be accessed at:

Source: Institute for Research, Education and Training in Addictions – March 14, 2014

Seeking and Getting Substance Abuse Treatment: Barriers Women Face

BarrierOur first article in this series, “Becoming Addicted: It’s Different—and Riskier—for Women,” delved into the vulnerabilities that challenge women who have an opioid use disorder (OUD).

Now we examine the potentially daunting barriers women face in seeking and getting substance abuse treatment. Some barriers are largely internal, based on the woman’s attitudes; others are generated by society; still others exist within treatment programs.

As noted in the first article, few women misuse a single substance, so many studies we cite yield data for substance use disorders (SUDs) rather than for OUDs alone.

Finding Treatment

Barriers to treatment confront women from the outset, and it’s no surprise that most women with an SUD are never treated for it. Compared to men with OUDs, women are likely to be at a socioeconomic and educational disadvantage, to be underemployed or unemployed, and to have primary child-care responsibilities. Their OUD comes on more quickly, and they progress more rapidly to serious consequences. Yet women tend to see their substance abuse as stress-related, a temporary crutch that will go away without treatment.

Women are less likely than men to know how and where to get treatment. Typically they refer themselves, sometimes prompted by family or friends, or are referred by the criminal justice system or social service agencies. Men usually are referred by employers, doctors, or the legal system—sources generally considered more knowledgeable about treatment options.

Women may consider private residential clinics too time-consuming, expensive, and tightly regulated to be an option. Television and print media lead many to think that treatment means substance withdrawal, and that methadone is a drug to avoid (see Hearing Bad Things About Methadone Treatment? Thank “Dr. Drew”—Summer 2012 issue).  So it’s no surprise that women account for less than half of treatment admissions for opioid abuse.

Internal (Patient-Related) Barriers

According to Susan M. Gordon, PhD, in addition to misperceptions about programs, internal barriers include low motivation for treatment, denial of problems, psychological problems, internalization of negative social attitudes toward women with SUDs, self-definition, and independent attitudes about help-seeking and self-reliance. Dr. Gordon is director of research at the Caron Foundation Treatment Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.

In particular, depression and anxiety may lead women to delay or do without treatment. Studies suggest that high levels of estrogen can enhance the stress response in subcortical regions of the brain, contributing to the higher prevalence of depression and anxiety in women.

Many women with an SUD have a history of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, as well as suicidal thoughts and attempts. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common, resulting from trauma or abuse. If a woman with an SUD has a history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse perpetrated by men—and most do—the very idea of a treatment environment that includes men can be distressing.

Women are more likely than their male counterparts to have a drug-using partner supporting her drug use. These women generally receive little encouragement to enter treatment, and may instead encounter resistance.

Health professionals are less likely to identify substance abuse in women than in men; often they refer women to mental health care providers instead of treatment programs. Women themselves are partly responsible; they often choose psychological or psychiatric help rather than substance abuse treatment. Shame and guilt, or lack of awareness of the significance or severity of their addiction, may keep them from sharing their substance history with the mental health provider. So their true problem may go undiagnosed, and they lose the opportunity for treatment for their SUD.

Social Barriers

Society stigmatizes women who abuse substances—especially women who have children or are pregnant. Communities and families often fail to provide the support women need, including child care and encouragement to enter treatment.

“Once a woman has developed an addiction, she deviates more from the female norm, compared with a man with an addiction,” according to Drs. Dorte Hecksher and Morten Hesse, writing in Women’s Issues. She’s viewed by some—and often by the woman herself—as a “fallen woman.” She worries about the disapproval of friends, family, co-workers, and employers, if she enters substance abuse treatment, especially if she is pregnant, or a mother. Her concerns about providing child care and the possibility of losing custody are a heavy burden.

Treatment Program Barriers

Denial. “Breaking the denial is a necessary first step to assisting substance-dependent women to get into treatment,” according to Ozietta D. Taylor, PhD, MEd, LCPC, assistant professor at Coppin State University, Baltimore, Maryland. The Taylor reference below discusses ways of using methods of intervention to help get a woman into treatment.

Socioeconomic barriers. Substance-abusing women are less likely than men to have insurance or full-time jobs, and public funding often means a long wait. Getting to a program is another issue; many don’t have a car or driver’s license, or even money for public transportation.

Therapies and relationships. Men tend to enter treatment with an aggrandized sense of self, according to addictions and trauma expert Claudia Black, PhD, while women are more likely to have a diminished view of themselves, because of their primary role as caregiver. Dr. Black is a senior fellow at The Meadows, a trauma and addiction treatment facility in Wickenburg, Arizona.

Women entering treatment have different needs than men. According to Mary Jeanne Kreek, MD, of The Rockefeller University, “a strong positive correlation exists between troubled relationships, family violence, sexual abuse and poor self-esteem as integral factors in substance abuse among women.” These factors don’t apply to men, and lack of gender-specific services in treatment programs is a definite barrier for women.

Women with SUDs benefit most from supportive therapies and a relationship of mutual respect, empathy, and compassion, according to TIP 51, but “the type of confrontation used in traditional programs tends to be ineffective for women, unless a trusting, therapeutic relationship has been developed.”

The Meadows in Arizona uses a multidisciplinary approach “to address women who present with more complex trauma and addiction issues, and more dual diagnoses,” according to Nancy Bailey, PhD, clinical director, who has commented that many programs still focus on one primary issue.

Overcoming Barriers

Programs can do little to overcome barriers generated by the patient and by society, but the opportunities are many once women reach treatment. TIP 51 and the Taylor reference below offer many excellent suggestions.

In particular, women need substance abuse treatment that is multimodal and addresses social services such as vocational rehabilitation.  Comprehensive services can mean the difference between treatment failure and success.

Factors encouraging treatment retention include supportive therapy, a collaborative therapeutic alliance, and onsite child care and children’s services. For women who have lost child custody, comprehensive services can be a powerful motivational tool to stay in therapy. Pregnant women especially need comprehensive services. It’s estimated that as few as four percent of women are pregnant when entering treatment, and the services they sorely need are difficult to come by.

Successful treatment often means walking a fine line. Some women believe they are expected to maintain relationships, even abusive ones, and dependency or economic factors may motivate them to do so. If a woman’s drug use has involved a relationship with a spouse or significant other, OUD treatment may threaten that relationship—and the woman’s physical well-being.

Caregivers need to keep this in mind, and avoid focusing on maintaining relationships while excluding women’s other important needs. Dr. Black has stressed the importance of a woman’s building support and relationships with female peers. The insight of other women in treatment can help her work through a troublesome relationship, and, if necessary, break it off.

According to Dr. Gordon of the Caron Foundation, programs that increase the chances women will complete treatment comprise mixed-gender programs, services for women, and integrated treatment for co-occurring psychological and physical conditions.

Dr. Gordon believes that “internal and social barriers present more daunting obstacles” than treatment program barriers, and she calls for a change in public attitudes, “if women are to reduce their own feelings of shame and sense of denial.”

She maintains that these are not impossible goals. “Public education campaigns have eliminated the stigma from cancer, and have increased dramatically the numbers of people who are screened, diagnosed and successfully treated for this disease. We can achieve the same results for addiction in women.”

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Back SE, Payne RL, Wahlquist MS, et al. Comparative profiles of men and women with opioid dependence: Results from a national multisite effectiveness trial. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2011;37(5):313-323. doi: 10.3109/00952990.2011.596982.

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 51. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 09-4426. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2009.

Goldstein JM, Jerram M, Abbs B, Whitfield-Gabrieli S, Makris N. Sex differences in stress response circuitry activation dependent on female hormonal cycle. J Neurosci. 2010;30(2)431-438.

Gordon SM. Barriers to treatment for women. Counselor. 2007; 8(3):22-29.

Hecksher D, Hesse M. Women and substance use disorders. Women’s Issues. 2009;7(1):50-62. doi: 10.4103/0973-1229.42585. PMID:21836779.

Jamison RN, Butler SF, Budman SH, Edwards RR, Wasan AD. Gender differences in risk factors for aberrant prescription opioid use. J Pain. 2010;11(4):312-320. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2009.07.016.

Kreek MJ, Borg L, Ducat E, Ray B. Pharmacotherapy in the treatment of addiction: Methadone. J Addict Dis. 2010;29(2):200-216. doi:10.1080/10550881003684798.

National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center, UC Berkeley. Prenatal Substance Exposure. Fact Sheet.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS): 2000-2010. National Admissions to Substance Abuse Treatment Services. DASIS Series S-61, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4701. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012.

Drug Addiction: It’s Different—and Riskier—for Women

When it comes to drug addiction, gender does make a difference.

Women start using substances and become addicted differently from men. Their addiction progresses faster, they find it harder to quit, they recover differently from men, and they relapse for different reasons.

These gender differences have a substantial impact on treatment for substance abuse. But when women’s specific needs are understood and addressed from the outset, better treatment engagement and successful outcomes often follow.

Women and Addiction: The Biopsychosociocultural Framework

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration TIP 51, Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women, proposes approaching substance abuse treatment for women from the perspective of “the biopsychosociocultural framework.”

Differences between women and men in genetics, physiology, anatomy, and sociocultural expectations and experiences lay the foundation for women’s unique health concerns related to substance-use disorders (SUDs). The biopsychosociocultural framework encompasses the impact of gender and culture and the contexts of a woman’s life, including her social and economic environment, and her relationships with family and support systems.

Risk Factors for Substance Use in Women

Some factors are associated more strongly with initiation of illicit drug use in women than with progression to abuse. They include risk-taking (as a personality trait), depression, obsessiveness, anxiety, and difficulty controlling behavior (as indicated by temper tantrums or tearfulness).

Genetics and environment both play a role in some risk factors. Parents who abuse substances may pass along a genetic susceptibility. They may also fail to adequately protect their children from abuse by others, and may be of little help to them emotionally. And they may unintentionally pass along the message that it’s okay to use substances to cope with problems.

Among other risk factors:

  • Divorce, never having been married, and widowhood (the incidence of SUDs in married women is only 4%)
  • Sexual or physical abuse or domestic violence in childhood or adulthood
  • A history of having adult responsibilities as a child: caring for younger children, performing household duties, emotionally supporting their parents
  • Unemployment or underemployment; low income; low education level
  • A partner who abuses alcohol or drugs (some women continue using substances in order to maintain the relationship, a situation that also occurs in some same-sex relationships)
  • Sexual orientation: lesbians have higher rates of SUDs than heterosexual women; younger lesbians and bisexual women are most likely to abuse prescription drugs

Protective Factors

Factors that help protect a woman against substance use, abuse, and dependence include a good marriage, a supportive partner, parental warmth during her childhood, religious affiliation and beliefs, and deep personal devotion.

Research Results: Characteristics of Women with OUDs

Women face a higher risk of co-occurring mental and physical disorders. A UCLA study examined gender differences in 578 men and women with opioid-use disorders (OUDs), drawn from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. The study found that “women were about twice as likely as men to have either a mood or anxiety disorder.” Women were also “more likely to have paranoid disorder, and men, more likely to have antisocial personality disorder.” Another study, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, found higher rates of “serious psychological distress” and “cigarette use” related to non-medical use of prescription opioids among women, but not among men. In contrast, “serious psychological distress” was a significant predictor of abuse/dependence for both sexes.

Other studies have found that women are much more likely than men to have co-occurring mental disorders, often three or more, including anxiety disorders, major depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Typically, PTSD follows trauma, sexual abuse, or violence—events that unfortunately are all too common in women with OUD. Physical disorders in women include gynecological infections, high blood pressure, amenorrhea (absence of menstrual periods) and pneumonia.

In a symposium report, Florence Haseltine, PhD, MD, noted that women tend to take illicit drugs to relieve stress; men, to get a high; women, for self-medication; men, as an adventure.

She added that women with OUDs are more likely to

  • Self-medicate, especially using drugs to manage negative moods
  • Need help for emotional problems, and at a younger age
  • Have attempted suicide

Others have observed that, in addition, women with OUDs tend to use more prescription drugs (and use prescription drugs that can be abused), obtain prescription opioids free from family or friends (men are more likely to buy them), and have partners who use illicit drugs.

Relationships and family history are key factors in women’s—but not men’s—initiation and continued illicit use of opioids and other substances. Women are more likely than men to have a family background of dysfunction and alcohol dependency, and to be brought into and maintained in drug use by a partner or family member. It almost seems that when women start to abuse substances, they already have three strikes against them.

Women are more likely to borrow needles and equipment from the person they inject drugs with. They’re also likely to inject immediately after that person—putting themselves at added risk of HIV and hepatitis infections. Intravenous drug use accounts for up to half the cases of HIV infection among women in the U.S., twice as many as sexual transmission.

But, importantly, women can temporarily change their pattern of substance use to meet caregiver responsibilities involving the family, such as pregnancy.

Looking Back When In Methadone Maintenance Treatment

In gender-specific focus groups in a methadone maintenance clinic at UCLA, comments from participants older than 50 years revealed clear differences between men and women in their views of their previous life in addiction. Women talked about the impact on their families, and their regrets about “. . . not being the mother I should have been.” And their remorse: “I almost lost my family.”  Men typically expressed surprise at still being alive, and previous fears about incarceration.


If a woman’s menstrual periods stop when she is using opioids, she may assume at first that the early signs of pregnancy are symptoms of withdrawal or underdosing. This often delays her pregnancy diagnosis and prenatal care.

But, as TIP 51 points out, “Women are socialized to assume more caregiver roles and to focus attention on others.” Indeed, once a woman is told she is pregnant, she typically casts aside her vulnerability and regains her traditional role of caregiver. She is likely to accept medical care for herself and her unborn child, and to stop or substantially curtail her use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, throughout her pregnancy.

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This article is the first in a series on the special challenges that make coping with addiction especially difficult for women. Future topics include the barriers women face in seeking and accepting treatment, and the best approaches to treatment for women in medication-assisted treatment programs. Programs need to address the special needs of women by offering auxiliary or wraparound services, or both—such as child care and prenatal services, and workshops on woman-focused topics.


Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 51. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 09-4426. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2009.

Becker JB, Hu M. Sex differences in drug use. Frontiers in Endocrinology. 2008;29:36-47.

Haseltine FP. Symposium Report: Gender differences in addiction and recovery. J Womens Health Gend Based Med. 2000;9(6).

Hamilton AB, Grella CE. Gender differences among older heroin users. J Women Aging. 2009;21(2):111-124.

Grella CE, Karno MP, Warda US, et al. Gender and comorbidity among individuals with opioid use disorders in the NESARC study. Addict Behav. 2009;34(6-7):498-504.

Grella CE, Lovinger K. Gender differences in physical and mental health outcomes among an aging cohort of individuals with a history of heroin dependence. Addict Behav. 2012;37(3):306-312.

Subramaniam GA. Clinical characteristics of treatment-seeking prescription opioid versus heroin using adolescents with opioid use disorder. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2009;101(1-2):13-19.

Back SE, Payne RL, Simpson AN, Brady KT. Gender and prescription opioids: Findings from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Addict Behav. 2010;35(11)1001-1007.

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