Treating Women for Substance Abuse
Although many drug rehab facilities cater to both men and women, optimum treatment interventions are not necessarily the same for both populations. For instance, women may need medical, psychosocial, family, peer support and similar services that are different from what men require. However, because women are the minority in many rehab facilities, specialized services geared toward them are often missing or inferior. At a minimum, there is a need for development of gender-specific sub-programs in mixed gender facilities. Ideally, the addiction medical community will continue to recognize the vast differences in treatment needs between men and women and begin opening women-only programs.
Because the most effective drug addiction treatment occurs over a prolonged period of time, intensive outpatient programs (IOP) offer an ideal setting for addressing the unique issues facing women in recovery. The best intensive outpatient drug rehab programs offer self-contained and comprehensive addiction treatment geared toward women; at a minimum, women-only group therapy should be available. In addition, research shows that women respond better to female therapists and, thus, all women in the program should have access to a female therapist.
However, the differentiation of drug rehab participants does not stop at gender. Across any group of female patients there will be differences in treatment needs based on varying backgrounds, experiences and level of addiction. Single working women with no children may have treatment needs that differ from single women with kids, who will likely have to address child care, transportation and parenting issues in addition to their addiction. During initial intake and assessment, addiction professionals will identify which women need gender-specific treatment and which women are better suited for more male-oriented, traditional groups.
It is common for those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction to be wary of the social stigma attached to their particular illness. The stigma can inhibit willingness to seek treatment, especially in women. Women are also more apt to regard addiction in terms of underlying medical issues, whereas men focus more on the addiction itself. This makes women more likely to seek treatment only when the addiction is at a much more advanced stage.
Recent studies reveal that only 25% of patients in any given mixed-gender rehab program are female. However, studies also tend to support the theory that more than 25% of women in the general population are addicts. Barriers to treatment such as finances, lack of childcare and lack of gender-specific treatment may account for this inconsistency. In order to increase the number of women seeking addiction treatment, we must reduce the number of barriers that women face when contemplating treatment. Flexible program offerings that respect limitations at work and at home may encourage more active participation.
For women who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, childcare is the number one reason given for not being able to enter treatment. Single mothers are especially conflicted when it comes to sacrificing time with their family for treatment. For others, the threat or perceived threat of losing child custody deters them from even admitting that they have a problem. One advantage of intensive outpatient drug rehabs (IOP) is that women are not removed from the home. Programs that also offer or provide for child care are absolutely critical for this underserved population as women are much more likely to participate in treatment if they are assured that their kids are safe and well cared for.
Although the intensive nature of many IOP drug rehabs make in-house child care cost-effective as compared to contracting out to separate facilities, in some instances, the ability to offer in-facility childcare may be cost prohibitive for a particular program. However, these programs should at least provide referrals to local child care facilities that have been pre-screened for both safety and the ability to care for children during the hours of treatment.
In addition to offering actual childcare, women-focused drug rehabs should also offer both day and evening treatment options. Although many mothers may prefer attend daytime sessions to maximize the time with their children outside of school hours, working women will appreciate the ability to receive treatment without having to take time off work.
Women also experience unique housing complications, especially if they have been subject to or a participant in domestic violence. In addition, active addiction may require that they live away from their children. Studies have shown that women addicts are more likely to be abandoned by their mates than men. As a result, some of these women become homeless because they do not have any job skills or have nobody to take care of the kids while they are working. Further, as the number of addicts subject to physical and sexual abuse continues to rise, there is a growing need for safe shelter from their abusers. Intensive outpatient programs that also help arrange for safe housing are likely to be attractive to a certain clientele.
That is not to say, however, that finding appropriate housing is just a matter of phoning local shelters. Many shelters will refuse to house people who are not yet in recovery. For this reason, transitional housing may need to be procured until the patient’s condition has stabilized and substance use has stopped.
Another important factor for some women clients is lack of access to transportation. Thus, it is important that the drug treatment program be located in a place that offers at least some access to public transportation or is close to where the large majority of clients live and work. Some programs may even offer bus passes or stipends to cover travel expenses.
The transformation from mixed-gender to women-focused treatment will not happen on its own. Instead, there is a need for advocacy in developing these specialized treatment programs. Because social stigma may prevent a woman from outwardly identifying herself as a substance abuser, doctors, social workers and religious leaders may be unaware that such a pervasive problem currently exists. Drug rehab programs should be developing outreach campaigns to highlight the gender-specific services they offer and encourage women to break through the stigma and seek help.