In recent years, there has been much more awareness of the differences between men and women with substance abuse disorders. In the past, most research concerned men more than women. In the clinical sector, 40% of treatment centers are now offering treatment facilities that are tailored to the sexes separately.
Men Vs. Women: the Main Differences in Substance Abuse
Currently, drug abuse is lower in women than in men. However, the number of women using and abusing illicit and prescription drugs is on the rise. Men are two to three times more likely than women to have a substance abuse disorder. This may have more to do with availability to the drugs rather than a biological vulnerability. Since drug use rates are increasing, it can be seen that women tend to increase their rate of alcohol, marijuana, opioid and cocaine consumption more rapidly than men. This is also true of nicotine use. Once addicted to drugs, women also have a harder time quitting than men do.
More Men End Up in the Emergency Room for Drug Related Events
Drug Abuse Warning Network estimates that in 2009:
- “cocaine was involved in 422,896 ED visits
- marijuana was involved in 376,467 ED visits
- heroin was involved in 213,118 ED visits
- stimulants, including amphetamines and methamphetamine, were involved in 93,562 ED visits
- other illicit drugs—such as PCP, ecstasy, and GHB—were involved much less frequently than any of the drug types mentioned above.
The rates of ED visits involving cocaine, marijuana, and heroin were higher for males than for females.”
Some of this has to do with the fact that men wind up in emergency rooms due to run-ins with the law. It’s more of a forced medical treatment than a voluntary hospital visit. Women are less likely to have criminal consequences to their drug and alcohol use, so their emergency room admissions are lower. Also, they are just less likely to seek help in a hospital setting.
Mental Health Issues Make Substance Abuse More Likely for Men
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states, “Substance use disorder changes normal desires and priorities. It changes normal behaviors and interferes with the ability to work, go to school, and to have good relationships with friends and family. In 2014, 20.2 million adults in the U.S. had a substance use disorder and 7.9 million had both a substance use disorder and another mental illness. More than half of the people with both a substance use disorder and another mental illness were men (4.1 million). Having two illnesses at the same time is known as ‘comorbidity’ and it can make treating each disorder more difficult.”
Mental illness and substance abuse are associated with many reasons. First, drug abuse can cause men to experience one or several symptoms of mental illness. For example, there is an increased risk of psychosis in marijuana abusers. Second, mental illness can lead to drug abuse as a way of self-medicating. Third, overlapping factors such as genetics and trauma can cause a dual diagnosis.
NIDA says, “Because mood disorders increase vulnerability to drug abuse and addiction, the diagnosis and treatment of the mood disorder can reduce the risk of subsequent drug use. Because the inverse may also be true, the diagnosis and treatment of drug use disorders may reduce the risk of developing other mental illnesses and, if they do occur, lessen their severity or make them more amenable to effective treatment.”
For adolescents, the risk of developing a co-occurring disorder is even greater. Significant changes happen to the brain during the teenage years that can make them more vulnerable to drug abuse and the development of other mental disorders. Education can be negatively impacted since the brain’s memory, reward, decision making, and behavioral control are easily influenced by drugs and alcohol.
Does One Type of Drug Put Men at More Risk Than Others?
Research entitled “Sex Differences in Drug Abuse” states that “While there are some differences among specific classes of abused drugs, the general pattern of sex differences is the same for all drugs of abuse. Females begin regularly self-administering licit and illicit drugs of abuse at lower doses than do males, use escalates more rapidly to addiction, and females are at greater risk for relapse following abstinence.”
However, “Fewer women than men abuse alcohol (7–12% versus 20%). Yet, the frequency that young women are becoming intoxicated on alcohol on a regular basis is rising, and the medical consequences of chronic alcohol consumption are more severe for women than for men. For example, women become addicted to alcohol more rapidly than do men, and brain atrophy develops more rapidly in women than in men (other negative medical consequences involve the heart, muscle, and liver which are also compromised more rapidly in women than in men.”
Gay and Bisexual Men at Higher Risk for Addiction
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Studies have shown that, when compared with the general population, gay and bisexual men, lesbian, and transgender individuals are more likely to:
- Use alcohol and drugs,
- Have higher rates of substance abuse,
- Not withhold from alcohol and drug use, and
- Continue heavy drinking into later life.
Alcohol and drug use among some gay and bisexual men can be a reaction to homophobia, discrimination, or violence they experienced due to their sexual orientation and can contribute to other mental health and physical problems. It can disrupt relationships, employment, and threaten financial stability.”
Also, gay and bisexual men suffering from addiction are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS. Drugs lower inhibitions and are more likely to lead to risky behavior.
How Do Drug Treatments for Men Differ From Treatments for Women?
Many drug treatment centers do separate the sexes for a variety of reasons. First, men may internalize their addictions differently, and communication styles can interfere with men’s ability to be completely comfortable with some female patients. Second, when men and women are in treatment together, romantic relationships can bloom. While in recovery, studies show having a romantic relationship in the first year leads to an increased risk of relapse. For women, more holistic treatment options are effective as opposed to men. This includes family therapy, art therapy, music therapy and female staff.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “In 2011, about 609,000 of the 1.84 million admissions to substance abuse treatment were female (33.1 percent), and 1.23 million were male (66.9 percent). In general, the proportions of female and male admissions are similar.”
In terms of entering rehab, men often begin treatment due to interfacing with the criminal justice system or at the request of their employer. For women, they often enter treatment because they ask for help from a healthcare professional or family member. The biggest impediment to a woman’s recovery, however, is finding adequate childcare.
It’s important to find a treatment program that fits a person’s specific history and addiction. Treatments are constantly being improved upon. The more scientists learn about gender-specific issues, the more they can positively influence rehabilitation for those struggling with substance abuse.