Gender Differences in Substance Abuse and Alcoholism and What We Can Learn

Research shows that women are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. More men start drinking and abusing substances earlier and are more likely to exhibit reckless behavior. However, women are more adversely affected by alcohol consumption.

It is clear there are differences that exist between how men and women consume alcohol. Why do drinking and substance abuse patterns differ between men and women? Since substance abuse is caused by environmental and psychological factors, it is important to examine the society’s attitude and approach towards drinking. We need to look at how we define alcoholic addition and see if we can gain insights into gender attitudes and behaviors.

Differences in Alcohol Consumption

Men have more frequent cases of alcoholism. They also have more frequent cases of cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases caused by excessive alcohol consumption. 58% of males who were 12 years or older were current drinkers compared to 46% of women of the same age.
However, this does not mean that women are not affected by alcoholism. Even though they report fewer cases of alcoholism, they are more prone to the adverse effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Physiologically, women have lower muscle mass and water content which intensifies the adverse effects of alcoholism.
Some researchers have suggested that given the same access to drugs and alcohol, the levels of substance abuse would be the same. This implies that there are conditions that prevent women from being prone to addiction from accessing or abusing drugs.
One of the factors that act as a deterrent to drug use for women is how they handle emotional issues. When faced with depression and anxiety, women are more likely to seek support. They seek support either from friends or from a professional counselor or psychiatrist.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to engage in reckless behavior. They may choose to live dangerously in order to forget about their distressing thoughts. Men are also conditioned by society to keep their emotions to themselves.
In the face of uncertainty and doubt, young boys are told to display confidence. Crying is considered a weakness, sometimes even without considering what caused it. Most males are likely to adopt these patterns of behavior believing it is a sign of strength.
But seeking support for a mental health or alcoholism problem shows strength rather than weakness. It is a sign that you are strong enough to admit you have a problem. Additionally, a problem shared is a problem half solved. Telling your story to a friend or a group is not only therapeutic but the addict can also gain a lot of information about their addiction.

Differences in Attitudes

We are also coming from a highly patriarchal society that had different rules for men and women. Women who drink and smoke have for a long time been seen as rebels or reckless. The way we define alcoholism is not the same for male and female.

This is also true for substance abuse and irresponsible sexual behavior. An alcoholic female may be judged even more harshly because there are fewer female alcoholics. Showing a more liberal view of sex is so frowned upon by some men, that women are sometimes blamed for being sexually assaulted.
Because women drinking or smoking is frowned upon by society, many may opt for other forms of escape to counter their mental distress. For example, research shows that women are more likely to report prescription drugs abuse in the last year. They are also twice as likely to use tranquilizers and analgesics.

Depression and Anxiety in Women

Several research findings suggest that men drink as a way to escape through anti-social behavior. On the other hand, women often drink to cope with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Part of the reason tranquilizer and analgesic abuse is more prevalent in the female population.

Women play many roles in today’s society. They play the traditional role of mother, wife, and caregiver, as well as employee, leader, friend, etc. The stress that comes with juggling these roles can cause a lot of distress. Enough to lead to alcohol and substance abuse addiction.

Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men. One of the factors that lead to higher rates of depression in the female is reproductive hormones. In lab studies on mice, female mice were more likely to show signs of stress than males. Menopausal females had much higher rates than their counterparts.

Violence Against Women

Despite men having lower amounts of testosterone, they still show a lower rate of anxiety and depression. This has been attributed to the male brain ability to convert testosterone into oestrogen.
But another factor that is often ignored is the unique experiences women go through. Even though there is the general feeling that the war on sexism is being won, statistics show that women still experience violence, verbal abuse, and sexual assault.

A report from the United Nations indicates that 35% of women globally have been subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Also, women are still being subjected to deadly domestic violence. The report shows that out of 87,000 women intentionally killed in 2017, half of them were killed by their partners.

Worldwide female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, cyberbullying, sexual harassment in the workplace, and other injustices are still prevalent. Considering that many women in the United States and around the world have experienced horrible injustices, it becomes clear why depression is more common.
It is important to understand how depression affects people, particularly women. The distress caused by negative thoughts often causes one to withdraw from friends and society. It can also prevent you from accomplishing your day to day tasks effectively. Clouded thinking caused by depression, is intense enough to cost you your job.

Women are expected and often depended upon to work as caregivers, mothers and homemakers. These tasks usually do not have significant breaks. They can easily cause a burnout especially if you are not mentally prepared to handle the challenges that come with such chores.


Depression needs to be treated as early as possible. Those with symptoms of depression are encouraged to avoid delays lest they develop even more severe complications. The distress that comes with depression can lead to alcoholism and substance abuse. It could also lead to loss of work and financial ruin if not treated on time.

Because of the unique experiences that women go through, some experts have suggested that there should be rehabilitation programs for females. There are some physiological differences that inform this view.

One physiological difference is that the female brain has a larger reward system. The reward system’s function is to signal to the brain of positive things happening around you. This could be part of the reason why women report experiencing stronger cravings for certain substances than men.
But even more significant is the abuse and violence that women are subjected to. Underlying mental health issues need to be addressed before we can define alcoholic addiction and treatment. We need to recognize that women go through unique experiences due to culture and social norms. Treatment programs for women should be considered in line with dual diagnosis and other evidence-based protocols.

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