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The Unique Barriers Women Face in the Recovery Process

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Studies continue to reveal that women have been reporting a startling increase in alcoholism and alcohol use disorders over the past decade.

As research and healthcare professionals grapple with this data, it is important to consider the complex barriers to treatment which women face during the recovery process.

Women Struggle Differently Than Men

The consequences associated with heavy drinking are accelerated in women. They encounter drinking-related problems more quickly than men and lose control over their drinking more quickly than men.

Women typically have less body mass and less water content in their bodies than their male counterparts. This means that after a woman and a man of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC, the amount of alcohol in the blood) will tend to be higher, putting her at greater risk for harm. This not only causes women to become more impaired as a result of drinking, it also exposes vital organs to more alcohol before it’s broken down. This can lead to a wide variety of health problems.

As such, chronic alcohol use takes a greater physical toll on women. Female alcoholics have death rates 50 to 100 percent higher than male alcoholics. Female alcoholics also have a higher percentage of death due to alcohol-related injuries, suicides, circulatory disorders and cirrhosis of the liver.

Barriers to Treatment

Some of the biggest treatment barriers for women are related to social structure and stigma. Women are often less likely to seek addiction treatment because:

  • They are concerned about the impact their absence may cause in their family
  • They tend to seek care in mental health or primary care settings rather than in specialized treatment programs
  • They are more likely to experience economic barriers to treatment
  • They are more likely to report feeling shame or embarrassment when they seek treatment
  • They often suffer from anxiety or depressive disorders (which tend to be reported more frequently by women) preventing them from seeking help specifically for addiction


Perhaps one of the most powerful de-motivators that causes women to avoid seeking treatment for substance use, misuse or addiction is the perceived impact it will have on their families. Many women are central caregivers in their family, and provide care and support for a spouse, children, aging parents, and perhaps also neighbors, friends or acquaintances. They are afraid that if they leave to seek treatment, the entire network will fall apart without their support.




Women Face Unique Challenges

In many ways, the life experience of women is distinct from that of their male counterparts. Women are much more likely to have been the victims of trauma, abuse or neglect than man. This includes:


  • Domestic violence
  • Homelessness
  • Victimization
  • Sexual trauma
  • Sexual assault
  • Molestation
  • Sexual abuse

These barriers also play an integral part mental health disorders which often occur alongside addiction. Co-occurring mental disorders are common with addiction and may also include:


  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • Low self-esteem


Consequently, any one of these mental health disorders can exacerbate substance use in unique ways. When these challenges are combined with a lack of access to childcare, a fear of stigma, and an unfavorable family or financial environment for women who also happen to be mothers, the pressures become even more enormous. As a result, women do not receive the help that they need or deserve.

Evidence-based, trauma-informed treatment that specifically addresses the unique needs of women is essential to recovery. Fortunately research suggests that women’s treatment outcomes are as good as, or better than, men’s. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism or addiction, the time to seek help is now.