Gender and Substance Abuse

Gender and Addiction

Gender is a term that refers to the roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that society consider appropriate for men and women. More commonly it refers simply to the biological sex of an individual, male or female. Alcohol and substance abuse problems are faced by both men and women, and it does not discriminate between age, marital status or age. However, gender has been found to be an important factor influencing both substance addiction and treatment. Vulnerability to drug or alcohol addiction can also differ for each gender. Researchers have studied the biological and psychological factors in addiction which may include hormonal reasons.

Treatment and Gender

Treating alcoholism or substance abuse problems is a complex issue. There is no one miracle solution that is suitable for all addicts. Because individuals suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse problems for different reasons, there are many different types of treatment available. Some individuals respond better to treatment that is focused on skill development or group therapy, whereas others may need the additional support of drug therapy.

Acceptance is a key factor for both males and females receiving treatment. Traditionally, drug and alcohol problems are more socially acceptable for males than females. Men are more likely to be in treatment than women, with reports suggesting that women make up 30 per cent of those in the treatment population for alcoholism. Women are outnumbered by men in treatment for drug abuse four to one. Men are more likely to seek treatment on their own or with the support of their family and friends, but conversely, women often get referred for treatment in relation to other problems. These may include family or children court orders or as a step in counseling for other emotional or mental health issues.

Women reportedly face barriers such as child care and family responsibilities, inability to pay for treatment, trauma, and psychological problems in addition to treatment. Many women use alcohol or drugs in response to physical or sexual assaults or other trauma. Stigmatization is a key element that women face when getting help for their drug and alcohol problems. Some women have reported fear in receiving treatment as they may face losing custody of their children which creates a major barrier in seeking treatment. There is also some evidence to suggest that women are discouraged from entering treatment by friends and family who fear the repercussions of the mother or wife being absent from the family home.

Conversely, men are more likely than women to be in treatment for alcohol or substance abuse, with over 60 per cent of those in treatment being male. Men have been found to enter treatment earlier at the suggestion of friends and family. However, there has been indications that serious health complications that are a result of drug or alcohol misuse does not increase the likelihood of men entering treatment. Men often hesitate to entering treatment because it is a blow to their ego, their image and their masculinity, or they may feel like they are letting people down. They are often well supported by family members and friends when they are in treatment and recovering.

Gender and Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a disease than can affect both men and women. The World Health Organization has estimated that in developed countries, 1 in 5 men and 1 in 12 women develop alcohol dependence during their lives. This gender difference is found to be the case all over the world and is one of only a few key gender differences in social behavior.

There are a number of hypothesized reasons for this disparity in alcoholism between genders. One reason could be because women metabolize alcohol in a different way than men which means they feel the effects earlier and to a greater extent than men. Thus, women feel the acute and unpleasant effects of alcohol more than men and suffer the negative behavioral and high risk factors to a greater extent.

Women who drink alcohol expose themselves to a number of health risks for themselves and for others. Alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of cancers, including breast cancer. Research has shown that women are more susceptible to organ damage at lower levels of consumption over a shorter period of time. This means that they also are also at risk of chronic diseases, neurological problems, cardiovascular issues, psychological problems and social issues that are related to alcoholism.

Conversely, men are twice as likely to suffer from alcoholism as women. Men are often heavier drinkers for longer, and suffer from the long term health implications such as brain and liver disease, cognitive problems and depression. Excessive alcohol consumption is also found to be a factor in sexual dysfunction in men which includes difficulty in getting and maintaining an erection, infertility, as well as an increase in sexual aggression.

Gender and Drug Abuse

As with alcohol abuse, substance abuse can be faced by both men and women regardless of their ethnicity, age, gender or marital status. Drug abuse is the use of illicit or prescription medication in harmful or dangerous ways. Illicit drugs include cocaine, heroin, marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamine and psychoactive drugs such as LSD and ecstasy. Prescription drug abuse is the use of prescription medication in a way that is not prescribed or for reasons other than as prescribed. Commonly abused prescription medications include Ritalin, Xanax, Valium, Vicodin, Dexedrine, Prozac, Lomotil and Ephedrine.

The World Health Organization estimates that 155 – 250 million people or 3-5 per cent of the population aged 15-64 used illicit substances in the previous year. Of these, between 16 and 38 million people are considered problem drug users. Problem drug users are those who regularly use drugs and have social and health complications as a result of their drug use. Cannabis, amphetamines and opiates are the most popular drugs used.

The National institute on Drug Abuse reveals that men are more likely to abuse drugs than women. However, this gender gap is only apparent prior to the very first use of a drug and the gap is closed once the availability to take drugs has been opened. That is, once the “opportunity” is available, males and females are equally as likely to use drugs.

Men and women have been found to have different biological and behavioral responses to drugs. This means that they may metabolize drugs differently, which is the same as with alcohol. Studies have also revealed that prescription drug abuse by men may be related to social and behavioral issues, whereas for women it could be for reasons of a psychological issue. Conduct and behavioral problems are more apparent in women who abuse drugs, but research has suggested that men develop depression and aggression issues due to drug abuse.

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