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Addiction Is a Growing Problem for Women and Girls
By Nancy Kennedy

Shawna Granato

No one chooses to become an addict, and no one thinks it will ever happen to him or her. But substance abuse and addiction are epidemic in the U.S., and although men are more likely to become addicts, women have narrowed the gap considerably. At Gateway Rehabilitation Center, Western Pennsylvania's premier treatment center for substance abuse and addiction, addiction counselors Shawna Granato and Nicole Kurash say that women experience addiction differently from men – in how they become addicted, how they deal with it in their daily lives, and in how they respond to treatment. At Gateway, there are special approaches to treatment designed to meet the unique needs of women and girls.

Shawna Granato, MSW, LSW, Director of Inpatient Programs at Gateway, says that addiction looks different in women. "The social and health consequences of addiction are worse for women, but are less apparent because women are able to stay functional longer. Women are used to keeping a lot of balls in the air, so it appears, at least from the outside, that they are fine. They maintain an appearance of normalcy and internalize their problems." That internalization has costs: anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, plus delayed treatment. According to Granato, what brings addicts into treatment is negative consequences, such as getting arrested. But because the consequences for women are more internal, they do not seek help as readily as men.

"Women are less likely to get arrested on drug or alcohol charges," explains Granato, "so they are able to hide the addiction longer. Addiction has more of a stigma for women, which is another obstacle to treatment. People accept substance abuse more readily in men. Addiction in a wife is viewed as worse than addiction in a husband."

The substances that women abuse vary according to age and environment. Alcohol is the easiest to obtain, the most socially acceptable and most common choice for older women. "Women 45 or older tend to abuse alcohol and the benzothiazines, such as Xanax," says Granato. "Women in their 20's and 30's use opiates and alcohol, and younger women use 'club drugs' such as bath salts and ecstasy, plus opiates. Prescription drugs are a problem for many women. These are often pain medications, legitimately prescribed to treat medical problems. Women are more likely to get prescriptions for opiates, because women experience more chronic pain."

Gateway has 20 locations throughout Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio that offer a range of services for substance abuse and addiction, including detoxification, inpatient and outpatient care, halfway houses, youth programs and employee assistance programs. Treatment is gender-specific, says Granato. "We look at treatment differently for women because women have different issues. Our in-patient groups are same-sex, and we encourage this in recovery. It's easier to relate to people of your own gender and it's less distracting."

Nicole Kurash

There are also differences in how younger women and girls, in contrast to older women, experience addiction. Nicole Kurash, Director of Gateway's Youth Program, says that girls are most often introduced to substance abuse through an individual, usually an older boyfriend, while boys become involved through a peer group. The progression of addiction, to opiates, is faster with girls. Girls are more likely to have a history of trauma or victimization, and thus are bringing what Kurash calls "a lot of legitimate emotional and psychological baggage."

Girls, says Kurash, are under tremendous pressure to be beautiful, sexual, thin and exciting, and drugs make them feel that they are all those things. But it takes harder drugs, and more drugs, to escape the pressure. "We see a population of girls who are using multiple drugs, significantly, while boys often are using marijuana alone. These girls are vulnerable; drug and alcohol abuse in women, especially young women, is linked to sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy, and disease."

Gateway gives young women and girls special attention, Kurash says. "We do a lot of self-esteem and safety work with them. We have girls stay in treatment longer. One challenge is that there are fewer resources for girls like adolescent halfway houses. Without a continuing care setting, they return to the same environment." Gateway's treatment for girls includes a program called Seeking Safety, which focuses on trauma experiences in relation to their addiction. "These girls have no idea how to feel safe, physically or psychologically," explains Kurash. "We teach them about healthy relationships and self-respect; they learn to meditate in order to have a mental safe place."

Granato and Kurash encourage women to be gentle with themselves and remember that, when they began using, it was a way to cope and seemed to be the best option at the time. Addiction is a disease, they say, affected by genetic and environmental factors, and there is treatment available.

According to Granato, "Addiction is not a shameful disease. It crosses all socioeconomic lines – age, gender, race, income and education level. There is no shame in asking for help when you need it.

To contact Gateway Rehabilitation Center, call 800-472-1177 or visit www.gatewayrehab.org

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