Academic journal article Social Work

Gender Differences in Drug Addiction and Treatment: Implications for Social Work Intervention with Substance-Abusing Women

Academic journal article Social Work

Gender Differences in Drug Addiction and Treatment: Implications for Social Work Intervention with Substance-Abusing Women

Article excerpt

Current research indicates that chemically dependent women differ from their male counterparts in specific ways: patterns of drug use, psychosocial characteristics, and physiological consequences of drug use. Research as well as clinical experience also shows that chemically dependent women have a great deal in common with nonaddicted women in this society. Such findings point to gender-specific differences that warrant careful attention in planning and provision of treatment. Data collected over the past decade demonstrate that women are more likely to abuse licit drugs and men are more likely to abuse illicit drugs (Corrigan, 1987; Sutker, 1981). Women who develop chemical dependency are more likely to describe the onset of their drug use as sudden and heavy, and men more often describe a gradual, progressive pattern of use (Herrington, Jacobson, & Benger, 1987; Wilsnack, 1982). In addition, there is evidence to suggest that addicted women frequently come from families in which one or more family members are also addicted (Cook, D'Amanda, & Benciavengo, 1981; Forth-Finegan, 1991).

This article highlights research on the ways in which chemically dependent women experience drug addiction and, in particular, ways in which they differ from chemically dependent men, ways in which chemically dependent women resemble nonaddicted women in this society, and ways in which traditional treatment models fail to meet the differential treatment needs of chemically dependent women. The authors draw on this research to describe an alternative approach to treatment and to identify opportunities and methods for social work intervention with substance-abusing women.

Gender-Specific Characteristics of Chemical Dependency

Patterns of Drug Use

A larger number of women than men abuse licit drugs such as tranquilizers, sedatives, psycho-active drugs, hypnotics, and stimulants. Women far exceed men in their medical and nonmedical use of prescription drugs and are more likely to obtain these drugs from "legitimate" sources, including physicians. Although the type of licit drug used and patterns of use vary somewhat according to age, geographical location, socio-economic background, and educational level, rates of licit drug abuse are greater for women than men in every age group, in each geographical location, and at every socioeconomic level (Sutker, 1981). Research also suggests that women are more frequently involved in multiple substance abuse--addiction to more than one mood-altering substance--than men (Celentano & McQueen, 1984).

Chemically dependent women are also more likely than men to use drugs in isolation and in private rather than in public places (Marsh & Miller, 1985; Reed, 1985). Male clients in treatment for chemical dependency describe using drugs in bars and in other social settings, whereas female clients describe using drugs at home. These women also report having few to no friends and very limited social networks (Rhoads, 1983).

Onset of Drug Abuse

Many addicted women in treatment report that they began using drugs after a specific traumatic event in their lives (Doshan & Bursch, 1982; Kane-Cavaiola & Rullo-Cooney, 1991; Reed, 1985). Incest and rape are commonly cited precipitating events for drug use among women (Volpe & Hamilton, 1982-1983), and rates of sexual and physical abuse reported by women in treatment run as high as 75 percent (Forth-Finegan, 1991; Root, 1989; Roshenow, Corbett, & Devine, 1988). Other traumatic events that precipitate heavy drug use in women include sudden physical illness, accidents, and disruptions in family life (Reed, 1985). Women who may have forgotten or repressed such events experience significant increases in drug use on the emergence of memories and flashbacks associated with these events, and relapse is highly correlated with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (Root, 1989).

Psychosocial Characteristics

It is more likely than not that addicted women come from families in which drugs were used as a primary coping strategy by one or more family members. …

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