In a recent study that I published with my colleague Mikael Dahlberg in Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, we found that girls with substance abuse problems appear to have more difficult childhoods and family environments than boys. In addition, girls are more likely to have problems related to school, more serious substance abuse problems, and more severe mental health problems. The study supports the gender-paradoxical relationship in which a smaller proportion of girls than boys enter treatment for substance abuse, even though girls tend to have more problematic life situations.
Girls often enter treatment on their own initiative or through the healthcare system, whereas boys arrive through the efforts of their parents or social services. There is also a greater propensity for boys to be arrested by police and convicted of crimes. Therefore, it could be that society prioritizes men and boys in the area of substance abuse treatment, because they come to treatment by more coercive measures.
Or are the problems that girls experience less visible or less recognized? The situation may relate to a gender-bound socialization process, where females appear to have learned to discipline themselves and internalize their problems more than males. Some of our findings certainly support this idea – girls may come to treatment later, with problems that have become more serious, because they have not been brought by coercive measures, as males often are.
Girls entering treatment may also follow a specific gender-related pattern. These pathways range from increased exposure to crucial risk factors among girls and young women in society, such as various types of victimization, often sexual, through severe mental health problems, extensive drug and alcohol use as a result of the traumatic experiences, and the subsequent emotional problems caused by these experiences.
The results of this study risk perpetuating ‘cemented’ gender stereotypes that are often attributed to females with substance abuse problems. But at the same time, it is hard to ignore certain differences between girls and boys entering treatment for drug and alcohol problems. Our findings indicate that it is possible to identify girls’ drug use earlier because they are far more likely than boys to have prior contact with psychiatric services, and are also more likely to have had problems in school. This provides opportunities for earlier detection and more relevant support at an earlier stage. Therefore, it should be possible to improve support by offering more girls outpatient care, which would also result in a more equal gender balance.
Mats Anderberg has a PhD in social work and has held a position as senior lecturer in the Department of Pedagogy and Learning at Linnaeus University since 2009. He is a former social worker and has a great deal of professional experience with youth in care and substance abuse treatment. His research interests largely coincide with his professional background and focus on exclusion and inclusion processes among young people with different types of substance abuse problems, and their living conditions.
Mats Anderberg, Mikael Dahlberg
First Published January 19, 2018