Women & Substance Abuse // Maria Pietruszka

(Picture from https://www.health-e.org.za/2014/07/09/drug-abuse-fuelling-gender-based-violence-soweto/)
As a mental health counselor in training with a special interest in substance abuse counseling, I decided to do the required internship hours at a substance abuse clinic in Brooklyn. I was thrilled that I was able to serve a community I grew up in and get the experience I really wanted. It is an outpatient clinic providing services for substance abuse victims, those with drinking under the influence cases, domestic violence cases and counseling for spouses and significant others. I have been there for almost 5 months and I noticed something that was very striking. There were a very small number of women attending any of the programs. Most of the women were seeking therapy as “co-dependents” living with someone with a drug or alcohol problem.
            Deep down in my heart, I would love to believe that the reason for the lack of women in the program is because women just do not struggle with drug or alcohol problems, however, that is just not true. Most research regarding drug and alcohol abuse is done about men (Sharma).  But the number of women struggling with drug or alcohol abuse has risen in the past few years. In 2007, it was reported that 1.8 million out of 32.2 million admissions to drug/alcohol treatments were females (whitehouse.gov). My concern is that while numbers of women attending these programs are rising, there is just not enough proper support which delays the acceptance of their situation and their treatment.
             Research tends to define women struggling with substance abuse as a “vulnerable population”. This might be accurate as men and women experience things differently, but what is it that makes women and men so different when it comes to substance abuse? Most of the research puts women in a special category because of their biological differences. Treatment centers focus on the fact that they bear children and need to maintain abstinence as if harms the child. This is problematic because women are not the only caregivers to their children. Men struggling with substance abuse can also benefit from treatment that incorporates their responsibility as fathers and caregivers and not putting that burden strictly on women.  Women are already less likely to enter any treatment programs due to the fear of leaving their children and/or that their children will be taken away from them if they admit to having a drug or alcohol problem (whitehouse.gov). 
Further, the research shows that most treatment centers assume that women who misuse or abuse drugs have a history of sexual abuse or some sort of trauma.  There is no reason to assume or imply that women's substance of drugs comes from having to be sexual abused or traumatized. This gives society the idea that if this is not the case, than women are “crazy” (Martin & Aston).  Because there is so little research around women and substance abuse, there is very little spoken about the marginalization of women, inequality and poverty that can also be a huge impact on their struggle with drugs or alcohol.
For the benefit of our women, there needs to be acceptance for those who struggle with substance abuse. Men entering substance abuse programs focus on getting clean and sober, while women are judged, criminalized and made to be unfit to carry out their responsibilities as mothers and wives. If we continue to fight for our equality and focusing on the basic needs of women in the struggle with drugs and alcohol, I strongly believe that more women would seek help. 


Martin F. S., & Aston, S. (2014). A "special population" with "unique treatment needs": Dominant representations of "women's substance abuse" and their effects. Contemporary Drug Problems, 41(3), 335-360.

Sharma, M. (n.d.). Substance Abuse in Women: Implications for Research and Practice. Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education.

Women and Treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/women-treatment


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