The Link between Women, Drug Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Drug and alcohol addictions are serious problems for men and women alike, but women face a unique set of challenges that may require different treatment approaches than those offered at standard rehab centers. This is because the root causes of addiction in women are often different than in men and the psychological and physiological effects of drugs are often more severe, requiring specialized and intensive treatment.

Women and Drug Addiction

Drug addiction can be caused by many things, but women face a unique set of factors that make them more susceptible. For one, women have different physiological responses to medications and drugs than men, which results in more side effects and more fatal drug reactions (statistics show that the mortality rate for women with addiction is 50 to 100 percent higher than men with addiction). Due to their size and hormone fluctuations during the menstrual cycle, women usually become intoxicated — and clinically addicted — more quickly than men.

A second major factor in women and drug addiction is the high prevalence of a history of abuse. Some estimates show that as many as 85 percent of women receiving treatment for substance abuse have a history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, particularly sexual abuse. If left untreated, the psychological consequences of abuse can lead many women to turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the damaging effects.

Finally, another factor to consider in women and drug addiction is the high rate of prescription drugs that are prescribed to treat a number of “female” issues. Women are encouraged to medicate symptoms of pain, fatigue and even moodiness, often with opiate-based drugs. Studies show that twice as many women as men take antidepressants, and that doctors prescribe twice as many psychotropic medications for women as for men. Women who take prescription medications as a way to cope with physical and mental issues can fall into the trap of “accidental” addiction.

Women and Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders of substance abuse and a mental disorder are very common for women. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders.

* Depression and anxiety: Women may turn to illegal drugs as a way to self-medicate symptoms of depression and anxiety, or may develop an addiction to legitimate prescription medications prescribed to numb the symptoms of their mental disorder.

* Post-traumatic stress disorder: PTSD, a type of anxiety disorder, is very common among women with addictions. Statistics show that almost 27% of women with a lifetime history of PTSD report drug abuse or dependency during their lives.

* Eating disorders: Women with depression or an anxiety disorder such as PTSD are much more likely to develop an eating disorder; in fact, research shows that 40 to 96 percent of all people suffering from eating disorders also suffer from co-occurring mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Some women who have an eating disorder may turn to stimulants such as crystal meth or cocaine to suppress their appetite and lose weight. In order to maintain weight loss, however, these drugs must be continually used, leading to a co-occurring addiction.

Dual diagnosis treatment, in which both the addiction and the co-occurring mental illness are addressed, is the best form of treatment. Women who fail to treat both disorders simultaneously are at a greater risk for relapse.

Getting Help for Drug Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Women face unique challenges in treatment and should seek treatment at a rehab facility that specializes in women, addiction and co-occurring disorders.  A good rehab facility should offer comprehensive treatment that includes treatment for drug and alcohol use, behavioral addictions, codependency patterns, mental health, trauma issues, eating disorders, sexual abuse, family functioning, social relationships, physical health and fitness, diet and nutrition.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.