Gender-Specific Rehab Offers Peer-to-Peer Support
Gender-Specific Rehab Offers Peer-to-Peer Support
by Kayla Gill on October 1, 2021
At its best, rehab is a safe, protected environment. And some people in recovery find that the greatest support comes from people of their own gender. This may be especially true if you’re healing from trauma, or toxic relationships, or simply want to reduce the time you spend explaining your emotional experience.
It’s important to distinguish between the concepts of gender and biological sex1. The National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health defines sex as “a biological classification, encoded in our DNA. Males have XY chromosomes, and females have XX chromosomes.” Most—but certainly not all—people are able to define their biological sex in this way.
Gender, on the other hand, is described as “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, expressions, and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, and how they act and interact.” Gender and sex, as defined here, don’t match up for everyone. Because of this, some clients may consider attending a rehab that caters to people with LGBTQ+ identities.
Significant research has been done into the differences between men and women with substance use disorders. There is still much to learn about the relationship between gender and addiction, especially regarding trans, nonbinary, and gender noncomforming clients. Not every rehab offers gender-specific treatment. And of the ones that do, some may be more welcoming of trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people. LGBTQ+ clients may want to prioritize rehab programs that are explicitly supportive of their life experiences.
People of any demographic may benefit from attending rehab with a cohort of people who share an aspect of their specific identity. You may feel safe among people with a similar vocation, age, religion, or gender. Being in a group of people like you can facilitate communication, and cut down on any potential distractions from recovery. This focused approach may also give you insights into your relationship with addiction, especially as it relates to your unique identity.
People of different genders face differing social pressures. For example, men often feel that they have to make a certain amount of money, repress their emotions, and project an image of strength. Women, on the other hand, often themselves in caretaking roles, prioritizing their loved ones’ needs over their own. All of these social pressures can contribute to mental health issues and substance use disorders. However, they often cause men and women to experience different kinds of distress.
Anyone can be affected by trauma. Many people develop PTSD or CPTSD as a result of traumatic experiences, and these conditions often affect people with substance use disorders. However, research shows that women entering rehab for drug addiction self-report “much greater proportions of past and current physical and sexual abuse than men2.”
Attending a women-only rehab program may let clients heal among peers who share their understanding of trauma, which allows you to speak in shorthand. This cuts down on the emotional labor that’s necessary to describe your perspective. As a result, you may get more immediate and fulfilling support from the people in your group. Those with co-occurring PTSD and addiction, or who otherwise have concerns about underlying trauma, may also want to consider attending a rehab that offers trauma-informed care.
Although “the rate of substance abuse and dependence is higher among men than it is among women,” men tend to enter treatment later in the course of addiction than women do. This may be because there is greater stigma attached to the idea of seeking help among men than there is among women. That stigma is isolating and extremely harmful. As a result, men may feel it’s better to suffer in silence than it is to get the help they need and deserve.
In a men’s rehab program, clients can work through some of this socially imposed shame among people who innately understand the pressures they face in their daily lives. Just by being present with each other, clients are reminded that they’re not alone. This facilitates community building, which is an important part of recovery.
Dual diagnoses can contribute to addictive tendencies for people of any gender. Research suggests that the prevalence of certain diagnoses varies between men and women.
One study on gender differences in substance use disorders3 found that women “have a significantly higher prevalence of comorbid psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, than do men, and these disorders typically predate the onset of substance-abuse problems.” However, Glen R. Hanson, Acting Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, believes this data may be misleading. He explains, “depression is much more common among women than men in the general public. This gender difference is much less pronounced among drug abusers. Possible explanations are that depression is a more potent risk factor for drug abuse among men than among women, or that drug abuse itself is more likely to cause depression among men than among women4.”
Because of these distinctions, men and women may require radically different kinds of therapy and medical treatment. By working with a team that specializes in rehab for people of your gender, it may be easier to get the specific kind of help you need.
Men and women have tendencies to misuse different substances. For instance, when compared to women, men are twice as likely to develop alcohol addictions5. Experts say, “for most of American history, men were much more likely than women to drink alcohol and use illicit drugs recreationally, while women were more likely to be prescribed drugs as medicine6.”
These distinctions may be due to the different expectations that society places on men and women. Men are encouraged to go out and impress their friends and colleagues. This makes it easy for them to develop—and then to hide—addictive behaviors. On the other hand, women’s health issues are chronically under-researched and misunderstood7. As this begins to change, there is hope that women may have more resources for healing from substance use disorders.
Overall, “women may be more susceptible [than men] to craving and relapse8 which are key phases of the addiction cycle.” This may be connected to gender-specific tendencies toward depression and anxiety. Hanson writes, “among men relapse is more likely to be associated with anxiety and positive feelings4, while among women depression and negative feelings appear to be more common triggers.”
Part of any rehab program includes the process of planning for aftercare. Your specific risk factors for relapse may impact how your team of healthcare providers helps you prepare for life after rehab.
If you choose to attend a gender-specific rehab program, you’ll likely spend your time there focused on the common experiences of people who share your gender identity. Although no two people have the exact same history, these commonalities empower clients to teach and learn from each other. Doing this in a protected environment may make it even easier to build strong relationships with your peers.
Women-only rehab tends to focus on trauma and relationships with loved ones. In an effort to make clients feel as safe as possible, many of these programs even have all-female teams of therapists and other staff.
Hannah’s House, a rehab center in Texas, is one facility that exclusively treats women. This program focuses on issues that many women face, including “body image issues, financial inequality, burnout, trauma, and mental health disorders.” Their clinicians are experts in these specific areas. In fact, ““each primary therapist is a masters-level clinician, experienced in treating…physical and sexual trauma, disordered eating, body-image issues, self-harm issues, and other challenges commonly facing women with addictions.”
While Hannah’s House only treats women, some rehab centers offer separate treatment programs for both women and men. If you attend this type of program, you’ll be surrounded by people of your gender, although both programs may take place on the same campus.
Sunrise Recovery Ranch, for example, is structured this way. They recognize that “The unfortunate reality is that many women who have abused or become addicted to alcohol7, cocaine, heroin, stimulants, or prescription painkillers have also experienced domestic violence, assault, or other forms of trauma.” While these and other issues may impact people of any gender, their program honors the fact that “addressing them in a mixed-gender setting may preclude some women from receiving the full benefit of the therapeutic experience.”
It’s true that, in many cultures, men experience less societal oppression than women. However, the presence of women in a treatment program may still be a trigger for some men, either as a distraction from the emotional work at hand, or due to the pressure to present a certain image.
In the men’s program at Sunrise Recovery Ranch, clients work through “the pain, embarrassment, anger, and fear surrounding an addiction that can ultimately lead to relapsing.” By doing this surrounded only by men, they may be able to get some much-needed space from these emotions. This allows clients to hone certain skills, such as emotion regulation and distress tolerance, before returning to their lives outside of treatment.
Soberman’s Estate, in Arizona, is a men’s-only rehab. Unlike Sunrise Recovery Ranch, there are no women on-site at the facility. This program is designed for professional men aged 30-80, and provides treatment with a focus on the emotional issues unique to men with substance use disorders. They honor the fact that “it takes courage to reach out for help, and that confidentiality and convenience are important to you.”
This luxury rehab provides amenities that may be of particular interest to the clients they serve. Specifically, it offers clients access to a putting green, a fire pit, and a farm-to-table menu. Rehab is hard work, but recovery doesn’t have to take place in stark isolation. This is a place where men can learn or relearn how to enjoy the healthy pleasures that life has to offer.
Individualized treatment can be extremely helpful for anyone in recovery, regardless of gender. Alex Spritzer, Family Addiction and Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at The Hope House Scottsdale, says, “the biggest takeaway I’ve ever learned from addiction medicine is that everyone’s going to be different and they’re going to require different needs. Looking at relapse rates and the challenges people have in staying sober, there’s a uniqueness about that.”
This philosophy can be applied specifically, by creating a bespoke treatment regimen for every individual client, or more broadly, by offering unique programs to people of diverse identities. It is especially important in the context of gender, because women and men often have such different social experiences of addiction.
One study found that although “women and men have similar outcomes after treatment for substance use disorders…women might experience greater sensitivity to stress or the cues associated with the drug6.” Furthermore, “women who are addicted experience greater stigma than do men; this combined with less social support means more isolation and greater risk for relapse for women than men.”
These differences not only impact each individual client’s experience of addiction; they also change the way other people treat men and women with substance use disorders. And recovery isn’t just about improving your mental health; it’s also about improving your life and your relationships. With that in mind, gender-specific programs may take different approaches to medical treatment, types of therapy, and even the length of a client’s stay in a residential program.
While these programs may be very helpful to some, they are not effective for all clients. If you’re not concerned with the way your experience of gender has affected your substance use, it may be unnecessary to find a gender-specific program. In addition, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and transgender clients may find these programs to be isolating, or even to exacerbate dysphoria.
Other clients may benefit from seeking treatment with a co-ed group, in which they have the opportunity to learn from people whose life experiences are vastly different from their own. It’s important to find a program that makes you feel safe, but doesn’t isolate you from the interactions that will help you grow.
Gender-specific rehab is a protected space. Clients can trust that they already share certain experiences with the other people in their cohort. When everyone in the room has the same basic understanding of one aspect of your identity, it’s easier to share tactics for how to effectively navigate the world around you.
These programs offer you insight into the ways that your experience of gender may impact your relationship with substances. Many people turn to substances as a way of numbing the pain or dissociating from the trauma caused by social pressures. Being surrounded by people who you know have been subject to those same challenges can be extremely validating.
Perhaps most importantly, gender-specific rehab allows you to connect with your peers in a unique way. As you watch the people in your cohort learn and grow, reintegrating the different aspects of their identities, you may find it easier to do the same. This can support you in learning the skills you need to find joy and meaning in life throughout recovery.
If you’d like to begin recovery in a gender-specific rehab, you can learn more about these programs in our searchable directory.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod