For American Women, Substance Abuse Is Becoming A Major Problem

By Jori Hamilton

Across the U.S., there are millions of people suffering from some level of substance abuse or addiction. In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 21.5 million Americans were battling a substance use disorder in 2014. With the rise of the opioid epidemic in the U.S., these numbers are quickly skyrocketing.  

Although there are serious issues across the broader U.S. population, the issue of substance abuse amongst women is particularly disturbing. Conflicting research suggests that men and women are equally likely to develop substance abuse disorders. However, successful recovery appears to be much more difficult for women for a variety of reasons.

Many of these reasons include issues such as difficulty communicating with doctors and other professionals who may not believe descriptions of pain. Others may include things such as mental health disorders or difficulties related to socioeconomic status. Ultimately, the prevalence of substance abuse among women is something that deserves to be addressed.

Growing Epidemics

There are certainly concerns in the rates of substance abuse in all aspects of the population, particularly when it comes to the opioid crisis. Some experts estimate that for people under the age of 50, the epidemic now claims more lives than any other single ailment. Often times opioids are taken to manage pain and are prescribed by doctors, meaning that there are substantial issues related to pain management and professional caretaking.

Particularly for women living below the poverty line or without adequate health insurance, safe pain medications and other means of controlling their symptoms may be out of reach financially. For them, substance abuse is often one of the few options available for pain management. Opioids may be available on alternative markets, but if not there are options such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol that can be utilized as substitutes.

Women often differ from men in their responses to addicting drugs. For instance, women may use a smaller amount of a drug for less time before becoming addicted or they may have more intense hormone-related cravings that make relapse more likely. It is thought that women are more likely to experience greater effects of drugs, especially within the cardiovascular system.

Mental Health Risks

Women are also at a far greater risk of developing a mental health condition that can lead to substance abuse than men. Often times this is related to a greatly increased stress load that women are subjected to. An estimated 51 percent of women experience the negative side effects of chronic stress, which if left untreated can cause an array of substantial problems.

In addition to stressors that affect everyone, women face a unique set of pressures brought on by our society such as the social pressures of raising a family while also holding down a high-level job. Women may also feel pressured to meet the demands of sexualized society that create an unrealistic ideal of what women should look and act like.

Stress can have a significant impact on the development of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, panic attacks, or even depression, and frequently women turn to illicit substances in order to cope. Overall, an estimated 8.2 million adults suffered from some combination of mental health condition and substance abuse in 2016. Of those, only 6.9 percent were receiving treatment for both issues.

Getting Help

For many women, the idea of getting help can be daunting. This is particularly true for women who are of a lower socioeconomic status or of a minority group. Many women within these groups have felt as though their doctors and other health professionals do not take their concerns as seriously as they would a women of greater wealth or any man.

Often times this creates a significant health gap that can ultimately lead to both poorer overall health treatment and greater rates of substance abuse among certain women. In these situations, turning to a substance that can help with self-medication can be both cheaper and less frustrating than actually attempting to receive much needed help. In many ways it simply perpetuates a dangerous problem.

There are a number of professionals out there, however, that are trained to help address substance abuse issues. Both social workers and therapists are trained to help address issues such as behavioral challenges, physical wellness, and stressors that might contribute to a substance addiction.

Substance abuse issues are particularly daunting amongst women, many of whom experience chronic, daily stress that can lead to self-medication. Fortunately, there are safe means of getting help from social workers and other healthcare professionals who are specifically trained to help patients recover from addictions. But the first step is bringing awareness to the issues  so women with substance abuse problems can get the help they need.

Jori Hamilton is a writer from the Pacific Northwest who covers social justice, politics, education, healthcare, technology, and more. You can follow her work on twitter @hamiltonjori or

One Comment

  1. Pingback: In The Midst Of An Opioid Crisis, Women Bear A Greater Burden - GirlTalkHQ

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