Early Research Included Mostly Male Participants
When research and studies on addiction began taking place, much of the research focused on male addiction. Men tended to have more substance dependency issues than women; a 5:1 ratio. That ratio then dropped down to 2.5:1. Addiction research on men, in the past, was often used to generalize female substance dependency problems. As a result, advocacy for female-specific treatment became prevalent in the 1990s and thereafter.
Women & Men Experience Addiction Differently
Women and men tend to experience addiction and recovery differently. Outside of biological sex, socioeconomic factors associated with male and female genders greatly influence addiction treatment. Both men and women face stigma for their addictions; women are particularly susceptible.
Research has shown drug and alcohol dependency is similar among both men and women: changes in brain chemicals and processes. In one study, both men and women with addictions showed reduced serotonin activity. Reduced Serotonin affects judgment, self-control, and emotional regulation.
The development of men and women’s addiction is different. Women’s addictions are often associated with violence, sexual abuse, risky sexual behaviour, and unwanted pregnancies. Women tend to cite health and family problems as the reason for entering treatment, while men cite employment and legal concerns.
Differences become even more apparent when men and women try to access treatment. Women commonly experience issues related to the caregiver role. They often delay treatment because of previous treatment failures, feelings of guilt and shame, fear of losing custody, feelings of helplessness, and the belief that change isn’t possible. Males often delay or avoid treatment based on masculine stigmas asserting men aren’t permitted to be weak or in need of help.
Because early research focused primarily on males, only minor changes were made to addiction treatment to include females. Because men tend to seek substance abuse treatment more than women, male cultural norms often dominated mixed gender programs.
In group settings, male and female issues may conflict with one another. Women focus on issues such as unhealthy relationships, violence, sexual abuse, eating disorders, impaired sexual functioning and orientation, parenting, childcare and custody, physical health, appearance, and hygiene. Men usually discuss problems like father/son relationships, anger and aggression, emotional isolation, spiritual disconnection, and sexual issues.
Why Mixed Gender Programs Then?
You may be wondering why mixed gender addiction treatment programs continue to be provided if they continually lack effectiveness. Because early addictions research grouped men and women together, it became a longtime belief that they could be treated together.
Some facilities do not have the resources to support separate male and female programs. With a desire to help both demographics, many facilities opt for mixed gendered programming. Catering to both men and women also provide facilities with a larger clientele pool than if they were to focus on just one sex.
The Benefits of Gender-Specific Addiction Treatment
Gender-specific addiction treatment has many benefits. For one, the separation allows individuals to address any issues specific to each gender. Males and females readily share more personal information in groups with peers of the same gender. Bonding behaviours are more noticeable, too. In mixed group settings, men and women may forego expressing issues in the presence of the opposite sex. Issues left unaddressed potentially magnify feelings of guilt, shame, and failure, which affect treatment outcomes.
Single gender programs eliminate sexual distractions among clients. New relationships can be used to fill “voids” experienced during treatment and escape emotional distress. In gender-specific programs, safe and supportive environments provide ample time for individuals to focus on themselves and their recovery.
Gender Affects Relapse Too
The effect of gender on relapse also needs to be considered while men and women are in treatment. Issues left unaddressed may influence relapse rates. Males tend to relapse for individual issues such as depression, while social skills and self-efficacy increase women’s risk of relapse.
Catering treatment to meet the needs of men and women can considerably improve the treatment outcomes and recovery of individuals. Private programs usually offer treatment specifically to males or females. Some also provide mixed programming, but at different locations onsite. Unfortunately, funding constraints limit the number of available women-only and men-only government treatment programs. To get into existing government programs, waitlists can be long (sometimes 6 months to 1 year) and involve a lengthy eligibility procedures.