March 10, 2010

Women's problems with addiction different from men's

— NORTH YARMOUTH — Diane Schuler drove the wrong way on a New York highway, killing herself and seven others. It is reported that she was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, which came as a surprise to her family and friends.

An Associated Press article in the Aug. 8 Press Herald quotes Dr. Robert Smith, an addiction psychiatrist and professor at Brown University, stating it is ''more common among women (than it is among men) to hide their drinking because of the social stigma of it.''

Women who are addicted harbor tremendous guilt and shame regarding their drinking or drugging and the possible consequences for themselves and their families that go along with the behavior.

As a result, they have highly developed coping skills and are able to hide their addiction even from their closest friends and family members.

In fact, studies have shown that children typically learn of their father's addiction at approximately 12.6 years of age, but don't learn about their mother's until 18.3 years of age.

Even in the most modern families, women are more likely than men to be responsible for the children, make the family dinner each evening, and do the family shopping and laundry. Both the stigma of being addicted, especially an addicted mother, and the need to meet family responsibilities, are significant roadblocks for women seeking treatment for their drug or alcohol problem.

Few treatment programs offer child care, and some women don't have a safe place to leave their kids while they take care of their problem.

If a mother is faced with a choice between taking care of her kids and taking care of her addiction, most will choose their kids. And if their family and friends don't see a problem, then why rock the boat? It has been estimated that 92 percent of women do not receive needed treatment for alcohol and drug abuse.

So how do high-functioning women like Diane Schuler become addicted in the first place?

First, it's important to understand the differences between men and women when it comes to addiction. Addicted women are more likely than addicted men to come from families where one or more members are also addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Addicted women are also more likely than addicted men to be in relationships with drug abusing partners and identify relationship problems as a cause of substance abuse. As many as 70 percent of women in substance abuse treatment have a history of physical or sexual abuse.

At Crossroads for Women, a 3-month study conducted last summer showed that 81.5 percent of clients presented with trauma issues.

Mental illness is also more common with addicted women than with men, as 72 percent of women who abuse alcohol have had at least one episode of mental illness compared to 57 percent of men. The rates are even higher for women diagnosed as alcohol-dependent.

Depression and anxiety are very common among addicted women. At admission to treatment, women exhibit symptoms of these conditions in equal measure if not more strongly than substance-related difficulties.

Further, the impact of alcohol on women's bodies is different. Women get addicted more quickly than men, and develop health problems faster and by using less alcohol than men.

Consequences of alcohol abuse such as hypertension, anemia, malnutrition, brain and heart damage occur more rapidly, making it more important to treat women earlier in the addiction cycle. Programs that focus on gender-specific issues have proven to be more effective than traditional coed treatment programs.

Because women come to treatment experiencing shame and guilt and mistrusting the important relationships in their lives, research supports treatment models that focus on providing environments where women can experience and build upon healthy relationships with staff, other clients, and family members.

The development of healthy connections with other women is crucial to renewing their sense of self-knowledge and self-worth. Treatment environments must also offer safety, security, firm limits and boundaries.

Medical research informs us almost daily of the differences between men and women, boys and girls, with respect to physical and mental conditions and behaviors, often with helpful information for diagnosis and treatment.

We may never know the full story behind Diane Schuler's tragedy, but the event has brought forth important questions about women and addiction that must be understood and addressed.

— Special to the Press Herald

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