While men and women experience addiction treatment differently, each gender can bring a different perspective to therapy. This is why many people find they benefit the most from co-ed addiction treatment.
In 2013, nearly 33.7 percent of the 1.68 million admissions who entered treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) were women. Most women are outnumbered by men in co-ed treatment environments, however it is possible to find recovery from addiction within these environments.
Addiction Differences Between the Sexes
Men and women experience addiction in different ways. For example, men use almost all types of drugs in greater proportion than women do, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. 1
Men are more likely to abuse alcohol than women. Men are also more likely to visit an emergency room related to illegal drug use, and experience overdose deaths in greater numbers.
By comparison, women are more likely than men to experience addiction cravings and relapse after a period of sobriety.
Substance Impact by Gender
Researchers also know that men and women respond to drugs in different ways. Also, a lot of the research regarding the effectiveness of certain prescription medications and rehabilitation approaches are centered on men and not women. This can present challenges in determining what treatments may be most effective for women.
How Substances Affect Men and Women Differently
Men are more likely to abuse alcohol and more likely to engage in binge drinking than women. However from the ages of 12 to 20 girls have slightly higher rates of alcohol misuse and binge drinking than boys of the same age.
Alcohol abuse is also more likely to negatively affect a woman’s health than when compared with a man. Because women tend to metabolize (break down) alcohol more slowly than men, they are more likely to become intoxicated from drinking alcohol than when compared to men when drinking the same amount.
Men tend to inject and use heroin in larger amounts than women do. Women typically start using heroin at a younger age, and typically use heroin for a shorter time than when compared with men.
Women also tend to report being influenced by a romantic partner into using in the first place.
Men reportedly experience a stronger “high” when they use marijuana compared to women. However, women’s memory is more affected than a man’s when using marijuana.
Both sexes are likely to have a co-occurring condition,such as anxiety or depression, along with a marijuana use disorder.
Women are more susceptible to the effects of stimulants, such as cocaine or methamphetamines. Doctors think this is because of their increased estrogen levels.
Women are also more likely to experience adverse effects on their heart and blood vessels when they abuse amphetamines compared to men.
However, doctors have found women are more receptive to treatments for methamphetamine addiction than men are.
Women are more likely to experience stronger psychoactive effects from designer drugs or party drugs like MDMA or Ecstasy when compared to men. Women are also more likely to feel depressed in the following days after use stops.
There is some research that shows that women are more sensitive to pain and more likely to have chronic pain than men. This may contribute to the high rates of opiods among women.
Women are also more likely to misuse prescription opioids to self-medicate other issues such as anxiety or tension.
Anti-Anxiety and Sleep Medications
Women are more likely to misuse central nervous system depressants which are typically prescribed to treat seizures, sleep disorders and anxiety. Detoxing from these medications puts the body at risk for seizure, making it vital to seek professional assistance when detoxing.
How Is Co-Ed Treatment Different From Single-Sex Treatment?
The most noticeable difference between co-ed and single-sex treatment is the presence of mixed genders in a co-ed treatment. According to the National Institutes of Health, researchers haven’t proven that either approach to substance abuse treatment is better than the other. 3 Men and women can succeed in treatments together, and they can also succeed in recovery when they are in gender-specific programs.
Why Co-Ed Treatment is a Good Fit for Some...
Discussions with Real-World Views
Co-ed treatment is a good fit for some people because it presents a real-world view. Men and women interact with each other every day, and each gender and person brings different experiences and viewpoints to a discussion. Sometimes, having a group of mixed genders can feel more authentic as a person will often later participate in relapse prevention programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous that are also co-ed.
Because men and women do experience addiction differently, people who participate in co-ed treatments in a group setting can hear about how a person’s addiction experience may be different. This can help a person better understand the overall struggles that can come with addiction. A person will also often find many similarities in how the genders experience addiction. Seeing these similarities can also aid in a person’s recovery.
Improves Social Skills
Co-ed treatments can allow a person to enhance their social skills. They can become more comfortable addressing their addiction and personal struggles in front of both genders. This can help prepare them for the “real world” when they return to their home, work, and personal life.
... But Not for Others
Doctors know that women tend to experience greater barriers to substance abuse treatment services than men. They often have to make considerations for childcare in greater numbers than men do.
Stigma and Shame
Women are also more likely to feel stigmatized and ashamed of their addiction than men, which can make it more challenging for them to pursue rehabilitation. Therefore, even getting the chance to attend treatment can be more challenging for women.
Potential Relapse Triggers
While researchers do know that outcomes are similar for co-ed and single-sex treatments are similar, there are some subsets of people who seem to benefit from single-sex treatments as opposed to co-ed ones. According to the National Institutes of Health, women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to history of trauma or sexual assault may benefit more from all-female recovery groups. Sometimes, women in this setting may fear contributing to discussions in group settings or bringing up their personal issues in front of men. 4 This can affect a woman’s overall success in treatment. Pregnant women may also benefit from the services offered specifically in an all-women’s program versus a co-ed one. 3
Top Candidates for Gender-Specific Treatment:
- Sexual assault victims
- Combat veterans
- Pregnant women
- Those with sex addiction
- Those with co-dependency
The data is similar for men who have PTSD from combat situations. They seem to have better outcomes from single-sex treatments than women.
Sometimes, if a person struggles with sex addiction or has a history of co-dependent relationships, they may also have difficulty participating in co-ed treatments. A person must seek care where they can focus on their addiction and recovery, not on those of the opposite sex. If they have historically had a problem accomplishing these goals in a co-ed setting, they may need to seek treatment in a single-gender program.
The Five Stages of Addiction Between Genders
In addition to the differences in ways a man and woman experience using different drugs, scientists have also identified different ways the genders respond to the five major stages of addiction, which are acquisition, escalation, maintenance, withdrawal, and relapse. 2 According to the Journal of Neuroscience Research, these differences are as follows:
The Five Stages of Addiction
The acquisition phase of drug addiction is when a person is first trying a particular drug. During this phase, women are more likely to “self-medicate” than men. This means they may take a drug to try and treat a condition such as anxiety or depression. Men are more likely to start using a drug as they engage in risk behaviors, often to appear that they fit in with a group.
The escalation phase of addiction occurs when a person starts to use drugs more regularly and in increasing amounts. Women often experience a more rapid escalation phase than men do.
During the maintenance phase, a person continues their drug abuse and starts to “stabilize” their addictions. This means that they will start to use drugs at a higher and regular amount. Women tend to stabilize their addiction at lower doses than men do.
During the withdrawal phase, a person stops using drugs or alcohol. Because their brains and bodies are accustomed to the substance being present, they can experience symptoms that range in severity from nausea to seizures and psychosis, depending on the drug abused.
Women tend to experience a greater stress response to addiction withdrawal than men. However, men tend to have stronger symptoms of withdrawal, particularly when it comes to withdrawing from alcohol.
The relapse phase can occur if, after a period of sobriety, a person returns to their drug or alcohol abuse. Women are more likely to relapse than men after a period of sobriety. Men are also more likely to experience longer periods of sobriety than women are.
Doctors and addiction care experts can use this knowledge of how men and women respond to drugs and addiction treatment to inform how they care for each gender.
Drawbacks to Co-Ed Treatment
Sometimes, co-ed treatment can lead to competition and discontent among gender groups. The appearance of both genders in group can sometime lead to romantic liaisons which are a distraction from the main purpose of healing.
Reinforcing Negative Male Stereotypes
The presence of the opposite sex may lead to disagreements among men and strong reinforcement of masculine stereotypes, such as that a man is not a “real man” if he expresses his feelings. 5
Trauma or Assault Victim Discomfort
Women may also form cliques within a treatment group and criticize other women as to how they are fulfilling their roles as wives or mothers. Individuals who were the victims of sexual assault or trauma may also feel more comfortable in a gender-specific treatment program.
Supporting Women in Co-Ed Treatment
As men are more likely to suffer from addiction and seek treatment for a substance use disorder, women are frequently outnumbered by men in co-ed treatment settings. Therefore, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration(SAMHSA) has released guidelines for supporting women’s recovery in co-ed addiction treatment.
The guidelines address six areas of women’s lives for whole person healing, including:
Women’s Unique Needs
This group takes into account individual priorities, interests, sexuality, culture and gender. This group also takes into account environment including social groups and socioeconomic status, and how that will impact the treatment plan.
This principal holds the belief that women develop their voices and self-identity through sharing stories with other women. This also acknowledges that treatment and recovery may have unintended bias that favor men.
This guidance recognizes physical and psychological safety as vital to the healing process. Trauma informed and strength based approaches are recommended to assist with healing trauma.
Effective treatment addresses all aspects of women’s healthcare. This includes screening for pregnancy. Comprehensive treatment also takes into account women’s body size when considering medications.
Treatment should acknowledge that women with substance use disorders have an increase number of co-occurring mental health disorders and use integrated treatment that addresses both conditions at the same time.
Effective treatment includes a therapeutic alliance between all involved in the healing process. Groups build relationships between women. Lessons include learning healthy boundaries with men and respect and communication.
Most Common Group Therapies
Finding Help in Group Therapy
Do Treatment Centers Offer Both Types of Programs?
Yes – many treatment centers will offer both types of treatment programs as a means to give people a choice when it comes to how they would like to receive their care. Having the opportunity to consider both program types can help individuals feel more in control of their care and recovery leading to more successful outcomes. 3