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The Pros and Cons of Gender-Specific Therapy

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Substance use disorders present many of the same problems for men and women. Addiction is a chronic disease not confined to any one demographic. However, research and statistics show that men and women may encounter different addiction treatment challenges, and they may develop substance use disorders through various factors. Gender-specific treatment is one way to address these factors. 

Addiction treatment must be tailored to an individual’s needs for it to be effective. People come to treatment with unique needs and respond to different therapy approaches. Understanding gender differences in addiction and applying them in gender-specific treatment methods is one way addiction care professionals adapt treatment to your individual needs and situations. 

Still, there is no one-size-fits-all addiction treatment program, and gender-specific treatment doesn’t work for everyone. Learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of gender-specific treatment. 

What Is Gender-Specific Treatment?


Gender-specific addiction treatment is a therapeutic approach that considers apparent differences between men and women who have substance use disorders and adapts treatment to address those challenges. 

For a long time, addiction treatment was geared toward men, and it was the same for everyone. 

However, research and statistics show that men and women may encounter different addiction treatment challenges, and they also may develop substance use disorders through various factors.

Gender-specific treatment tailors therapy to these specific needs. It may also involve group sessions or whole treatment plans that are just for men or women so that they are going through treatment alongside people who face the same or similar challenges. However, gender-specific treatment is applied to every treatment plan. Some people have a unique set of problems, or they may better respond to greater variety through treatment. 

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Differences Between Men and Women in Addiction Treatment


Men and women struggle with some unique issues related to addiction treatment. They often approach substance misuse for different reasons, have different paths to seeking treatment, and struggle with different issues throughout their treatment program. 

Of course, they also share many similarities, and many people don’t fit the statistical mold that suggests how their sex or gender might experience addiction and treatment. Still, understanding these potential differences can help tailor treatment to men and women more effectively. 

Men and women seem to gravitate to different substances. Again, there is a tremendous overlap between men and women and the drugs they use. However, men and women have an increased likelihood of using specific drugs. 

For example, men are almost twice as likely to binge drink than women, leading to higher rates of alcohol use disorders among men. This also has other consequences for men. They’re more likely to die in alcohol-related accidents and develop alcohol-related health issues such as cancer. 

Women are also more likely to misuse prescription medications, such as benzodiazepines or opioids, and men are more likely to use illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. 

Men and women may also initiate substance misuse for different reasons. Studies have shown that men are more likely to engage in substance misuse to be a part of a social group and bond with others. They may also use drugs to engage in exciting, risky behaviors. Women are more likely to initiate drug use as a way to self-medicate for existing mental health problems. For instance, prescription drugs may be misused or overused to deal with anxiety or depression. 

Genders also approach treatment and progress in treatment differently. Women can develop addiction faster, but they also progress in treatment

Benefits of Gender-Specific Treatment

The differences between men and women are often relevant during treatment. Identifying and addressing these unique challenges can help therapists provide effective treatment to both groups. Understanding the reasons someone started using drugs can help address underlying issues related to their substance use disorder. Understanding the different challenges men and women face in treatment can help make the treatment process more comfortable.

Tailoring a recovery program for men or women can help create a treatment environment that anticipates and addresses client needs. For instance, since women develop an addiction more rapidly, women who enter treatment programs tend to have more severe issues than men. A treatment program geared toward women might be better equipped to treat these issues. Women are also more likely to have experienced sexual abuse or trauma. Going through a program alongside women with similar issues may increase their comfort level and allow them to engage in treatment.  

Likewise, men tend to report worse withdrawal symptoms, and they’re more likely to have contemplated or attempted suicide in the past. Gender-specific therapy options for men who have experienced suicidal ideations may help them feel more comfortable opening up about their problems.  

Comfort is an important factor in the success of addiction treatment. Clients who feel free to open up and explore their substance use problems in therapy are more likely to make progress that leads to effective treatment. For instance, men often struggle against the stigma that opening up emotionally or seeking treatment isn’t manly. Going through treatment with other men who struggle with the same issue might be beneficial. 

Gender-specific treatment may also reduce issues like sexual tension or romantic distractions. Gender-specific treatment is often used early in the treatment process. It’s usually not a good idea to engage in a romantic or sexual relationship in treatment, especially during this critical stage. Many people can focus on their recovery while around the opposite sex. However, the proximity between men and women might increase the chance of relationships developing. 

Disadvantages of Gender-Specific Treatment

Research indicates that men and women have an increased likelihood of experiencing specific challenges in addiction, but that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to experience addiction and treatment in the same way as the majority of their gender. Addiction is a complex disease. People present to treatment with a unique history of mental health issues, physical needs, and social issues. 

They also respond to different therapeutic approaches. Although gender-specific approaches can be used to better tailor treatment to individuals, the gender-specific approach also doesn’t work for every person. While one person could benefit from treatment alongside people who are struggling with the same issues they are, others may benefit from being exposed to a variety of people and their problems. 

Another disadvantage is that gender-specific treatment might not prepare participants for certain aspects of the real world. Many people struggle with social issues in addiction treatment, so exposure to people of the opposite sex and their unique issues might be beneficial. However, gender-specific treatment could be one part of a person’s treatment plan, and they may progress to outpatient treatment or other therapy options that prepare them for these aspects of everyday life.

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction

Becker, J., McClellan, M., & Reed, B. (2017, January 2). Sex differences, gender and addiction. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5120656/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, December 30). Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Men's Health. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/mens-health.htm

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). NIAAA Publications. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh291/55-62.htm

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, July). Treatment and Recovery. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery

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