A Doctor’s Opinion: Why Gender Matters When Overcoming Addiction
by Ellen Ovson, M.D., FASAM
Addiction. Unless you are living it, the word is easy to gloss over. With daily headlines about the opioid epidemic and popular shows taking on alcoholism and drug dependence themes—like Mom on CBS, and the recently Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary Heroin(e) —addiction is now mainstream.
But the issues are not as straight-forward as they once seemed (remember the “Just Say No” generation?). Addiction is complicated and treatment programs have evolved from the simplified versions you see on TV—especially when it comes to gender.
The “Age of Addiction”
The impact of addiction in this country has never been greater. As of last year, one in eight US adults met the criteria for alcohol use disorder and nearly half of US adults have a close friend or family member who’s been addicted to drugs. And it’s getting worse. According to recent reports, almost 24 million people nationwide now suffer from drug and alcohol abuse issues, with less than 10% of those getting the treatment they need.
The opioid crisis alone is also growing—despite the attention, it’s receiving and being declared a national emergency. Just this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report finding that opioid overdoses increased nearly 30% overall in the United States in the past year.
The Need for Gender-Specific Treatment Programs
Simply put, addiction is not curable. It’s a relapsing brain disease that patients have to overcome for the rest of their lives. Staying sober by avoiding drugs or alcohol looms over every decision made throughout the day. People with addictions develop deep-rooted, toxic habits that sustain their dependence are physically and emotionally difficult to overcome. That’s why treating addiction at the root of its cause is the most important factor in getting clean.
As the Medical Director of Lakeview Health, a nationally recognized drug and alcohol treatment center, I have seen these complexities in my own patients. For Men and Women, the root cause of addiction is very different, which is why it’s so important that rehabilitation programs have a good approach to gender specific treatment for substance abuse.
Addiction in Men vs. Women
Most people become addicted for a reason—underlying emotional and physical problems that led to the drug use (or abuse) to begin with. Treatment programs that address both the substance abuse and the underlying issues are called dual-diagnosis programs. But the factors and circumstances that contributed to addiction vary greatly by gender.
For Women, the most common factor is trauma from sexual assault. For Men, the most common issue is unresolved loss and grief. Here are some other gender-specific factors that affect recovery.
- Past trauma, including emotional or sexual abuse, is more common
- Addiction may be linked with pregnancy and caring for children
- Women often need longer periods of recovery
- Women tend to feel more comfortable talking about addiction with other women
- Men may have come to addiction for personal reasons relating to masculinity
- They tend to feel more comfortable talking with other men about their addictions
- Physical health tends to play a large role in how men handle their addictions
With men and women affected so differently, shouldn’t there be treatment specific for each gender? It’s called Gender-Responsive, and it’s the approach we take at Lakeview Health.
Why A Gender-Responsive Approach Works
Gender-Responsive Treatment is simply a way of saying, in one phrase that people:
• May develop addictions for reasons related to their gender
• May enter treatment for reasons related to their gender
• Are likely to respond to addiction treatment in ways specific to their gender
Gender-Responsive Treatment programs, like the program I lead at Lakeview Health, separate recovery programs into male-only and female-only facilities so that each group can get the different support they need from treatment and recovery. For instance, a woman whose addiction path involved sexual abuse is able to avoid emotional triggers and receive treatment for the underlying trauma.
Studies suggest that nearly half of all people who try to get sober, return to heavy use, with 70% to 90% experiencing at least one mild to moderate slip. Men and Women who enter gender-specific alcohol and substance use treatment programs tend to stay in treatment longer and have better outcomes than those who don’t.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, getting appropriate treatment is important. Choose a program that will help with the factors that led to addiction as well as addressing the toxic habits that perpetuate it, such as the Gender-Responsive Treatment facilities at Lakeview Health. Finding the right treatment center is going to set the patient on the best path for long-term recovery.
Founded in 2001, Lakeview Health is at the leading edge of the gender-responsive movement in alcohol and substance use treatment and recovery. With addiction treatment centers in Florida and Texas, we strive to treat the whole patient – mind, body, spirit, and emotions – using a multidisciplinary, integrative medical model that combines physiological, psychological, and psychosocial care.
About The Author: Dr. Ellen Ovson, M.D., FASAM
Dr. Ellen Ovson is a full-time member of the multidisciplinary team and brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to helping men and women recover from addiction. As Medical Director, she leads the medical team and serves as an authority on all medical issues.
Dr. Ovson is Board Certified in both Internal Medicine and Addiction Medicine. She has more than 17 years of experience in addiction medicine and more than 41 years in internal medicine.
Ovson earned her undergraduate degree at Emory University and graduated from medical school at the University of Alabama. She did her internship at Charlotte Memorial Hospital in North Carolina and her residency at Carraway Methodist Medical Center in Birmingham, AL. Ovson is a member of numerous professional organizations including the American Board of Internal Medicine, the American Board of Addiction Medicine and the American Society of Addiction Medicine, where she has held several leadership positions. She is a published author whose works focus on various aspects of addiction. Dr. Ovson is frequently invited to speak on the topic by numerous organizations and medical centers throughout the country.