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Women and Substance Abuse:

Alarming Growth Warrants Wellness Attention

Wellness professionals and healthcare experts agree on a serious issue: chemical dependency is an equal opportunity disease.

But physiological reasons coupled with a womanÍs high-stress lifestyle make her particularly susceptible to alcohol and chemical abuse, according to Patricia A. Pape, president of Pape and Associates, a counseling and psychotherapy service.

And, Pape says, members of the wellness community have a responsibility to correct the defects in assessment and treatment systems.

Gender Differences and Substance Abuse

"Gender differences related to substance use and abuse derive largely from the condition of being female in our society," Pape says. "Different standards of acceptable behavior stigmatize women, which they internalize as low self-esteem and shame. This becomes an obstacle to seeking help."

Pape says there are documented differences in the ways that alcohol and drugs affect women and men. For instance, although women may drink less than men, they experience more severe physical consequences in a shorter period of time, she noted; women have a slower metabolism of alcohol compared to men, and are subject to higher blood alcohol levels from the same amount of alcohol, Pape explained.

Psychological Differences

Pape said wellness professionals also have become more aware of the psychological differences between women and men who abuse drugs and alcohol experience more depression and anxiety, have lower self-esteem, tend to drink and use drugs to escape and to self-medicate, Pape reported.

Pape said women also are more inclined to start drinking in response to a specific stressful event, such as the loss of a relationship or role.

In many cases, women who become substance abusers suffered serious childhood disruptions and early parental depravation, she said, noting that approximately 80 percent of these women are victims of childhood physical and/or sexual abuse.

"Socially, these women tend to be isolated," Pape said. "Often, they have partners who are substance abusers and perpetrators of violence, such as battering and assault."

Treatment Initiatives

Pape said the wellness community has been responsible for some of the encouraging changes in the areas of treatment initiatives and funding for women in trouble.

Wellness professionals were among those who promoted the formation of the WomenÍs Treatment Committee in Illinois, Pape said. The committee published "Restoring Healthy Families," a report that contained 127 recommendations related to womenÍs treatment, and the "Gender-Sensitive Training Manual," she added.

Pape said research into womenÍs substance abuse also got a boost in 1993, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandated that women and minorities must be included in all NIH-funded research in the same proportion that they occur in the general population.

"This was a huge advance " just enormous," Pape said. "Until then, women had been excluded from most of the research on chemical dependency. When this changed, the recognition factor changed along with it. ItÍs harder to ignore a problem when you know it exists and when the documentation is so available."

Pape said the change in NIH policy also influenced wellness professionals and health experts to encourage chemically dependent women to seek help. But progress in this area has been slow, Pape said.

"ItÍs so important for women to feel safe enough to talk about their situations," she explained. "The link between physical and sexual abuse and other developmental trauma and womenÍs addictions is not easy to face."

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