Despite the fact that the specific issues and the physiological effects of substance use disorders impact women differently than men, behavioral health services, have rarely taken sex and gender differences into account.
In order to address this and improve treatment services for women, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) developed a treatment improvement protocol (TIP) that addresses the specific needs of women in the treatment of substance abuse disorders. It is SAMHSA’s belief that women’s needs when acknowledged and addressed from the onset result in improved outcomes. Some of their findings are summarized below.
Research indicates that relationships are extremely important to women and thus play a part in substance abuse treatment. Consequently, the therapeutic alliance is an important consideration and plays a part in predicting positive outcomes. The characteristics women cite as being important to them in a counselor are someone they can trust, who is non-authoritarian, someone who is warm and caring, has confidence in their skills and is accepting. Women frequently report preferring a woman counselor although men can be competent and helpful providers for women. Men who work with women however, should pay attention to certain issues such as anger, autonomy, power, and stereotypical roles.
It is important that providers are sensitive to the relational history a woman brings to treatment both positive and negative. Providers should explore the role of the extended family and who is and isn’t in the woman’s life and how affected these relationships are by the substance use. Including significant others in treatment can be extremely helpful but only if the partner is supportive and there is not a history of abuse. Helping a woman improve her relationships through communication, stress management, assertiveness, problem solving, and parenting skills is recommended. It is also important to assist women in treatment with feelings pertaining to guilt and shame, especially as they relate to their children.
Another important difference between men and women has to do with relapse. Although women and men do not differ in regard to relapse rates, women report more interpersonal problems, strong negative affect, severe traumatic stress, and low self-esteem as precipitants to relapse. Women display a greater lack of coping skills, and a greater difficulty in establishing new recovery friends than men. They are, however, more likely to seek help when they relapse and to have shorter relapse episodes than men.
Exploring issues pertaining to sexuality including sexual orientation, fear of having sex while abstinent, sexual dysfunction, and STD’s is also important when treating women with substance use disorder. It is also important to be educated and sensitive to issues pertaining to culture.
Lastly, treatment providers for women who struggle with substance abuse must provide trauma- informed treatment by explaining trauma symptoms, providing psychoeducation on trauma, assist with skill-building, as well as providing safety and support.
In summary, gender responsive treatment involves a safe and non-punitive
atmosphere where staff are invested in women and are hopeful and positive
about women and are invested in women’s lives and experiences.
For over 50 years, New Bridge Foundation® has made it a priority to treat women
by providing them with the high-quality treatment services that celebrate
women’s uniqueness and strengths.