Women's Health Matters

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Prevalence of women’s substance abuse

Until recently, much less has been known about women’s, as opposed to men’s, substance use. The research and treatment used to focus on men; and, given the unique interconnections between women’s lives and substance use, simply applying our knowledge of men to women has been insufficient and inaccurate. Recent research has explored women’s substance use in more depth. Findings include:  

  • In Canada, over the past 15 years, girls and women’s substance use has been on the rise.
  • Alcohol is the most commonly used substance by girls and women.
  • Women, more often than men, abuse prescription drugs.
  • More women tend to cope with emotional or relational problems by using substances.

In addition, women face unique physiological concerns related to substance use

  • Some evidence shows that women are more vulnerable to the acute and long-term effects of alcohol and tobacco. For example:
    • women are at a greater risk for developing liver damage, brain damage and heart disease related to their alcohol use
    • women are more likely to develop lung cancer and heart disease due to tobacco use
  • Cocaine and heroin have been shown to interfere with a woman’s menstrual cycle.
  • Women are more likely to use and become addicted to tranquillizers and sedatives.
  • Women become dependent on substances more quickly than men.

Understanding addiction in the lives of women

For women, addiction is rarely a single, dimensional issue. Addiction does not tend to occur in isolation. Rather, there are physiological aspects to addiction, personal history influences, and social, economic and cultural factors influencing addiction. In order to understand addiction in the lives of women, we must understand it as a multifaceted and interconnected problem.

The interconnections of substance use in women
Substance use is often connected to other difficulties in a woman’s life. For example, a woman’s mental health and history of trauma is most often related to her substance use. In addition, women face significant stigmatization regarding their substance use. Women who struggle with substance abuse experience unique concerns related to being a parent or being pregnant, and often face significant barriers to treatment.   

Mental health: Depression, which is more common in women than in men, has a mutually influential relationship with substance use. Women who are depressed are at an increased risk of using substances, and those who use substances are at an increased risk of struggling with depression. Other common mental health struggles for women who struggle with substances include anxiety and eating disorders. In fact, women who struggle with addiction are two or three times more likely to have multiple diagnoses than those who do not struggle with addiction.  

Trauma: Women who have experienced trauma or violence, are much more likely to develop addiction problems. After all, research shows that a history of trauma plays a significant role in women’s mental and physical health. Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows higher rates of abuse histories in women with addiction problems than in those without addiction problems. Commonly, women with a trauma history use substances to cope with the psychological difficulties related to their trauma. For example, trauma or PTSD-related symptoms often trigger substance use. This, unfortunately, makes women more vulnerable to new traumas (adult victimizations or revictimization). A vicious cycle can develop where substance use is used as a coping strategy that leads to more difficulty and vulnerability.

Stigma: Women face more stigma related to their substance use than men. Men’s drinking is often normalized as part of male culture, whereas women’s drinking is often seen as contrary to women’s nature. Women with substance use problems are often stigmatized and have their femininity and sexuality attacked.  As a result, women often feel a lot more shame and guilt related to their substance use problems. 

Parenting or pregnant women: Parenting or pregnant women often face unique struggles on top of their substance-related difficulties. There is significant stigma associated with parenting or pregnant women using substances. Consequently, the stigma can get in the way of seeking help. In addition, many women who struggle with substance use often fear losing custody of their children and consequently do not access support. 

Barriers to treatment faced by women: In addition to the stigmatization of women’s substance use, often times seeking treatment can pose unique challenges for women. For example, resources for women who need childcare or treatment that addresses the unique needs of those who are pregnant are often limited.  


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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital