Current Affairs: Gender Bias and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse and addiction are issues that are becoming increasingly prevalent in our societies. Although we are fortunate and have many ways of accessing treatment, there exists a large gender bias when it comes to seeking help for substance abuse related issues.

Treatment centres for people with substance abuse problems are failing women patients.  Standard treatment has not fully taken into account the unique barriers faced by women and, as a result, women are less likely than men to get the help they need.  The first barrier is knowledge: the history of substance abuse research, as recently as the 1990’s, focused almost exclusively on men. More recently researchers have recognized that there are almost the same number of women as men with addiction problems but there are important medical differences between the genders. A 2010 study of addiction in women by Harvard Medical School noted that women are slightly less likely to become addicts; however, when they start using addictive substances, they tend to slide into a dependant state much more rapidly.  Women also have less success obtaining treatment and quitting their addictions. All of this proves that we are insufficiently educated on women and addiction, therefore making it much more difficult to help them.

There are barriers to substance abuse treatment that affect women much more than men. Research shows that motherhood can be a barrier as often women do not have someone who will care for their children or other relatives if they are the primary care giver in the family.  Even worse, some women may fear that they will lose custody of their children if they admit to an addiction problem. Women also have a harder time than men finding the money to pay for treatment and have less support from their romantic partners once seeking treatment. Often boyfriends and husbands fear that their partners will meet someone in rehab when in fact many women actually feel intimidated by the idea of living away from their homes with men who are strangers.

Practitioners must develop outreach tools and treatment plans that address these the unique barriers women face so that women will be encouraged to seek out and successfully complete rehabilitation treatment plans. This form of sexism in the medical field needs to be changed in order to ensure men and women’s equal access to adequate treatment for addiction.

by Talia Satchu