For a while now, examples of how women are mistreated or discriminated against have been rightly highlighted in the ongoing conversations and struggles for a more equitable society. One area where public perception and policy still have a ways to go is in the Stigma of Addiction and its impact on women. 

Women and Stigma of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

In general, women who struggle with drugs or alcohol experience less sympathy and more criticism than men in the same situation. This issue is deeply entangled with other societal norms—including the traditional gender roles that still influence how we think of women and men—but has a predictable outcome.

Because of the increased stigma attached to women who have substance use disorders, many women delay or avoid seeking the help they need. That, of course, makes everything worse rather than better—and calls attention to the fact that we need to treat everyone, regardless of gender, with the same care, concern, and compassion when it comes to substance abuse.

Women and the Stigma of Addiction

Not only are women more likely than men to experience chronic pain, which can facilitate a prescription for opioids, but they also tend to use opioids differently than men. Women are more likely to take opioids for longer periods and at higher doses, which can cause dependence quickly. Women also have higher risk factors for addiction that include such things as depression and other psychological issues. Now that opioid prescriptions are being limited by various state and local programs, many women who have become addicted to prescription pain medications have turned to other drugs such as heroin as a substitute.

Let’s look at some barriers that may stand in the way of more equity and compassion—and ways those barriers can be overcome.

Stigma can create significant barriers for women seeking treatment for addiction. The fear of judgment or discrimination can deter women from reaching out for help, which can lead to delayed or inadequate treatment.

Motherhood and Addiction:

Women who are mothers may face intense scrutiny and prejudice if they are struggling with addiction. Society often places a heavy burden of responsibility on mothers, and addiction can be seen as a failure of their maternal role. This can lead to child custody issues and exacerbate the stigma women face.

When a mother struggles with addiction, her children are often deeply affected. This can lead to neglect, emotional trauma, and instability in the child’s life. Substance abuse and addiction can impair a mother’s ability to provide a safe and nurturing environment for her children.

Mothers with addiction issues can face intense stigma and judgment from society, healthcare providers, and the legal system. The expectation that mothers should be perfect caregivers can lead to harsh criticism and legal consequences, such as loss of child custody.

Mothers who are addicted may experience profound guilt and shame related to their inability to fulfill their maternal roles effectively. These feelings can be a barrier to seeking help and recovery.

Child welfare system: When child protective services become involved, the interaction between the child welfare system and mothers with addiction can be complex. Ideally, efforts should be made to provide support and resources for mothers to recover and reunify with their children, but this is not always the case.

Trauma and Addiction:

Many mothers with addiction have experienced trauma, such as domestic violence or sexual abuse. Trauma can be a significant contributing factor to addiction and complicate the recovery process. Many women with addiction issues have experienced trauma, such as sexual abuse or domestic violence. This trauma can contribute to addiction and complicate the stigma women face, as society may not always recognize the underlying trauma as a contributing factor.

Upending Tradition: Traditional Gender Roles Are Part of the Problem

In a 2018 article on AccessU, John Kelly, who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is quoted as saying, “It’s less socially acceptable for women to be using drugs or drinking, so there’s more of a stigma than for men in recovery.” This is true, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that men struggle with addiction more than women by a ratio of three to one.

Assistant Professor of Social Work Amy Krentzman, who teaches at the University of Minnesota agrees, saying, “Stigma varies across different cultures and ethnic groups, but I think across them all, the stigma of a woman in recovery is much more severe than the stigma of a man.”

Caregiving Roles

Some of this increased stigmatization may be traceable to the caregiving roles society still tends to assign to women more frequently than men. Despite some ongoing shifts in the understanding of so-called traditional gender roles, the idea of caregiving is often deeply associated with women. We think of women as the ones who encourage and support others—in the family, in circles of friends, and even in the workplace.

That caregiving role comes with a lot of responsibility. And it doesn’t leave a lot of space for self-care. Indeed, here is an insidious way in which the assigned caregiving role can actually contribute to the development of a substance use disorder. Stressed to the limit caring for others while also maintaining their own responsibilities and ambitions, women may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. And they may hide or deny that they have developed a problem—in large part because they fear disappointing others. Or because they fear being deemed a bad mother or partner. Or because they fear losing their jobs.

This issue may be even worse for women battling addiction who live in poverty and/or are single mothers. Those raising children on their own as well as those who struggle financially (the two issues are often intertwined) are all too often derided and looked down upon. Again, this may lead to substance use as a coping mechanism—but to people lacking in empathy, that substance use might look like proof that the woman in question is irresponsible, lazy, or selfish. Worse still, the combination of financial difficulties and childcare challenges can make it even more difficult for a person to seek the help they need.

All of this is a sort of cyclical trap for women facing addiction issues. Breaking free of that trap is absolutely essential if you are struggling with a substance use disorder.

Stamping Out The Stigma of Addiction for Women

The pressures of caregiving, work, raising children, supporting friends, and more can all become overwhelming. And drugs or alcohol might seem like a temporary escape—and one you can keep under control or a secret from others. You might feel extraordinary pressure to keep that secret to hold the stigma at bay.

But a substance use disorder is a brain disease—not a moral failing or a reason for someone to judge you. Like any disease, it requires treatment grounded in both research and compassion. And while there is no cure, it is possible to achieve and maintain lasting sobriety. In addition, many treatment facilities offer resources for those who may struggle to pay for (or find time for) treatment.

And so our primary message is a simple one: overcome your fear of stigma and get the help you need. If you can, enlist the help of your most supportive friends and family so that you have a strong network of people who will stand up for you—even when you find it hard to stand up for yourself. Then find a treatment center—like The Aviary Recovery Center—that can help you get and stay sober.

The Aviary Recovery Center: Zero Percent Judgement, One Hundred Percent Help

Motherhood and addiction is a challenging issue that requires a compassionate and comprehensive approach to support both mothers and their children. This approach should focus on providing treatment, addressing underlying issues, and reducing the stigma associated with addiction in mothers.

Struggling with a substance use disorder is not a moral failing. At The Aviary Recovery Center, you will never feel judged. Instead, we offer compassionate, respectful, personalized care designed to help you put drugs or alcohol behind you and restart your life from a place of sobriety. We are also equipped to address any co-occurring mental health disorders and to connect you with resources that can help you overcome other challenges in your life that may be contributing to your substance use issues. No matter who you are, we are here to help—not to judge.

Looking for a Missouri addiction specialist? For more information about The Aviary Recovery Center, please contact us anytime at (314) 464-0222. We’re here to help.