Dorothy Richards is a member of the CLARE Foundation Board of Directors and a longtime advocate for women struggling with addiction and substance use disorders. Richards, whose work inspired the launch of the Dorothy Richards Fund for Women’s Recovery, knows that when women decide to get sober, they face unique issues that demand individualized treatment.
Although men tend to use drugs more than women, studies have shown that women’s drug use is more likely to escalate to full-blown addiction.
“To improve parity in levels of care between men and women, one must be aware of the fact that women are physiologically and physically different than men, and their issues are different,” Richards said. “We were always told that a woman physically went down the chute much faster than a man. You seem to be a social drinker and handling it, and then all of a sudden, you’re gone.”
According to Richards, a major factor in the difference between men and women seeking treatment is the stigma women face when they choose to seek help. While Richards said that the stigma has lessened in recent times, partially due to public figures who have been candid about their battles with addiction, forty years ago social ostracism was extensive enough that it served as a barrier to treatment. This fear of “going public” was of particular concern for mothers, who feared that their children would be shunned if it was discovered that their mothers were addicts.
“Today, [recovery] is in social media. It’s everywhere, which makes it a lot easier for women to seek recovery services today than it was a long time ago,” Richards said.
Still, women continue to face hurdles that can prevent them from getting lifesaving treatment. The wage gap between men and women, and the fact that women are less likely than men to work high-prestige jobs, contributes to a lack of financial security and a higher likelihood that women may be uninsured or underinsured when compared to male counterparts, Richards said.
Women are less likely than men to stay in long-term treatment, perhaps as the result of gendered expectations of women to serve as primary caregivers. According to Richards, this disparity is why the availability of campus-based treatment that includes residential, sober living, and outpatient is so important. By encouraging women to stay on the same campus, integrated programs like CLARE’s prevent women from being compelled to return to a home life that might hinder their recovery, be it due to temptations to use or dangers like domestic violence.
As public discourse turns towards the availability of women’s healthcare, it is essential that we don’t forget substance use and behavioral health treatment in the wider fight for affordable and accessible care, according to Richards.
“We need to talk more about the fact that this is a disease, and women suffer from this as a disease, just as they would breast cancer,” Richards said.