What’s So Good About Gender-Specific Treatment?

December 22, 2021

By Melissa Riddle Chalos

When it comes to seeking treatment for substance abuse, it is important to understand gender differences and the role they play in addiction. Women and men develop substance use disorders for different reasons, with unique circumstances fueling relapse and recovery.

Women with substance abuse issues face functional interference in more areas of their lives than their male counterparts, according to Dr. Carla Green’s “Gender and Use of Substance Abuse Treatment Services.” Men are more likely to use illegal drugs and develop drug-related problems than women. According to National Institutes of Health (NIH), people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) face social stigma, discrimination, and other challenges not encountered by heterosexuals, as well as higher rates of substance use disorders.

There are also biological factors that impact substance use disorders. For example, men have higher levels of enzymes to break down alcohol in the stomach and liver than women, so intoxication (and the pattern of drinking to intoxication) happens quicker in women than in men.

Gender-specific treatment minimizes the defensiveness and triggering that can emerge in multi-gender group settings.

Also according to the NIH, it is widely accepted that effective treatment tends to the multiple needs of the individual, “and any associated medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal problems … and be appropriate to the individual’s age, gender, ethnicity, and culture.”

And while there is limited research to support the assertion that gender-specific treatment is more effective than multi-gender treatment, the fact that women are more likely to pursue drug and alcohol treatment in a gender-specific program makes a strong case for its validity and effectiveness.

What Are the Benefits?

The benefits of gender-specific treatment are both simple and complex. Here are three to note:

  • For starters, it’s about comfort level.

Women face so many roadblocks to seeking treatment; once they make it in the door, it is imperative that they feel welcomed, included, and safe. Substance abuse often stems from abuse, and anyone who has been abused physically, sexually, or emotionally requires trauma-informed care, as they often find it more difficult to share their experiences in mixed-gender groups. In addition, women often struggle with self-esteem or body image issues inextricably tied to their substance abuse issues, all of which are more difficult to share in non-gender-specific groups. Both men and women need space to find the courage to be vulnerable and honest about their lives and their issues.

  • Secondly, gender-specific treatment values context.

Individuals need shared cultural connections with those whose lives and struggles mirror their own. As caregivers, women face work-life balance challenges that only women can understand. Men face other issues completely unique to their life experiences and express those differently in mixed-gender groups. Within gender-specific support groups, same-sex therapists, and in group therapy with gender-specific psychotherapists, the context of life experience that led each patient to abuse drugs and alcohol answers many questions.

  • Gender-specific treatment achieves more clarity.

It also contains fewer distractions than multi-gender settings. Nature creates emotional and physical/sexual tension between the sexes that can make it difficult for individuals to focus on why they are in treatment to begin with.

The Claudia Black Young Adult Center, which specializes in addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues for 18- to 26-year-olds, offers gender-specific groups, experiential treatment methods, and peer support, all targeted specifically to the unique needs of this age group. They understand you can’t get to the root of the problem if you’re too intimidated by who’s in the room.

You can’t get to the root of the problem if you’re too intimidated by who’s in the room.

Studies have shown that gender makeup in group settings impacts the ethical behavior of the group; one reported by VOXEU found that there is more lying in male groups and mixed gender groups than in female groups. Gender-specific treatment minimizes the defensiveness and triggering that can emerge in multi-gender group settings. Time can be more effectively spent on challenges relevant to the group — like pregnancy, childcare, and physical and sexual trauma that is more common in addicted women, according to DrugAbuse.com. Gender-specific treatment allows for the sensitivity and direction needed when discussing these issues.

Why Gender in Treatment Matters?

Gender-specific treatment programs — whether for addiction or other co-occurring disorders — are important because they understand the unique challenges individuals face in seeking treatment to begin with. People who struggle with substance use disorders feel isolated and paralyzed when they need help the most.

To learn more about how a gender-specific addiction treatment can help you or someone you love, visit our Claudia Black Young Adult Center website. We can help you find the courage and healing you need to recover from whatever is holding you back.