Men and women often experience things differently, and that includes addiction and recovery, making the need for gender-specific treatment essential – especially for teens.
Although both men and women can develop addictions to substances, the reasons that they begin using those substances are often very different, and the coping mechanisms they build for themselves and the consequences they experience because of their addictions are often very different as well. Because of these different experiences, it makes sense that successful addiction treatment also looks different in men and women.
Addiction In Men vs. Women
If you’re familiar with the history of medical research, you might not be surprised to learn that up until relatively recently, most research on addiction was done on men, meaning that most treatment plans and programs were tailored to what worked for men.
This meant that women weren’t always able to find a type of treatment that worked for them. Research into addiction issues that centered women didn’t start to become common until the last few decades. Take a look at some of the things we now know about how addiction affects men and women and reasons why gender-specific treatment matters.
Gender-Specific Treatment Helps Provide A Sense of Safety
Although it’s by no means universal, it’s common for people who have addiction issues to have experienced some type of violence or abuse in their past. For various reasons, people often feel safer opening up about these types of experiences in same-gender settings. For example, a woman who’s experienced sexual violence may feel safer speaking about that experience in a setting where there are no men present.
Men also sometimes feel safer speaking honestly in same-gender settings. Men can be sensitive to the cultural expectation that they will be strong and even stoic in the face of any hardship or abuse that they might experience, especially in front of women. In all-male settings, men may be more comfortable speaking about their real experiences without fear of others judging them as unmanly.
Single Gender Treatment Settings Help Minimize Distractions
Women may be more likely to wait to be asked to speak and to speak quietly, while men are more likely to speak loudly and not wait for permission to speak. In mixed-gender settings, these tendencies:
- Can lead to women feeling as if they’re being talked over and overlooked
- Can lead to men feeling stifled by rules intended to make sessions more woman-friendly.
By putting men and women into gender-specific treatment settings, men and women can communicate in ways that are most natural to them without feeling shut down or ignored.
Single Gender Treatment Helps Address Gender-Specific Issues
Some of the differences in how teenage men and women experience addiction and recovery come about because of cultural or societal expectations or because of differences in how men and women are treated generally and how that treatment helps shape them as people. In other words, they’re a product of outside influences. Other differences are more inherent to the person’s gender. For example, women are more likely to understand and have experience with what it’s like to be pregnant while struggling with addiction issues.
Single-gender treatment settings allow for sessions that focus on issues that primarily affect only one gender or that affect the different genders in different ways. In a mixed-gender setting, spending an entire treatment session on a subject like addiction during pregnancy could exclude or alienate the male members of the group, but it may be important for the female members to discuss it. Single-gender treatment sessions are one solution to that problem.
What’s more, both men and women may feel more comfortable talking about gender-specific medical or physical issues – for example, menstruation or erectile dysfunction – that may be affected by addiction or by treatment. Addiction and recovery are physical experiences as well as mental and emotional experiences, and physical health can be affected during active addiction and recovery in any number of ways. People who are in treatment need to be able to discuss those kinds of issues in treatment, and single-gender treatment programs can help facilitate those discussions.
Gender-Specific Treatment Addresses Body and Self-Esteem Issues
In addition to physical health, addiction can also affect a person’s physical appearance, and body image and self-esteem issues related to looks can sometimes be a factor in how and why a person develops an addiction in the first place. Ongoing body image and self-esteem issues can be a factor in recovery and contribute to relapses if they’re not addressed.
Both men and women can have body image issues or suffer from low self-esteem related to how they look. However, these types of issues tend to present very differently in men and women.
- Both men and women may feel more comfortable talking about how they look and how they feel about their bodies in single-gender groups. They may think it’s embarrassing to discuss the same topics in a mixed-gender setting.
- What’s more, it can be difficult for men and women to offer the right kind of support to each other when talking about these issues.
In single-gender settings, men and women are more likely to speak openly and are also more likely to understand what other participants in their group are going through.
In addition to group treatments, it also helps when therapists approach treatment with an understanding of how gender affects experiences even in a one-on-one setting. It’s not always necessary to choose a therapist or counselor who is the same gender as yourself. Some people may feel more comfortable with that, and that’s OK too. The important part is for the therapist or counselor to understand how gender informs experience and approach treatment plans with that lens.
Just as men and women often need different dosages of medicine, they need different approaches to therapeutic treatments as well. Look for a counselor or therapist who understands the role that gender plays in addiction and approaches therapy with that in mind.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.