Gender Differences in Addiction and Suicide

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Substance use disorders and mental health conditions may seem like two sides of the same coin. They often go hand-in-hand in what’s known as a dual diagnosis. But the two worlds of rehab and mental health treatment have some striking differences. We’ve posted before about the clinical barriers  between these two treatment areas that can make it difficult for substance use patients to get help for suicidal thoughts. It seems that these two clinical areas have developed their own separate cultures with different assumptions about who needs what kind of care, and ultimately, who belongs in treatment.

Looking at the most recent data on who seeks these types of treatment and who’s most at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, we start to see that men and women have very different experiences. Let’s see what the numbers say and what that means for those who are seeking help.

Suicide and SUD By the Numbers

If you were to walk into a random group rehab session in the U.S., you’d likely find yourself surrounded by men. However, in a mental health clinic, you’d be in a room full of women.

  • 5% of males over 12 have a substance use disorder, compared to 6.4% of females. Men also outnumber women in addiction treatment programs, making up about 70% of participants.
  • 6% of women reported receiving mental health treatment within the past 12 months in 2020, compared with 14.6% of men.

Men are more likely to die by suicide than women, but women make more suicide attempts.

  • In 2020, the suicide rate among men was 88 times higher than women, but women were 1.8 times more likely to attempt taking their own lives.
  • The risk of suicide increases with multiple substance use disorders for both men and women, but women who use multiple substances have a higher suicide rate than men.

When we look at the data altogether, it seems there are more addictions and deaths by suicide on the men’s side. At the same time, women seem to seek treatment for mental health conditions and attempt suicide more often. It all aligns with the gender stereotypes that men are more about action and women are more about feelings. But if we consider the number of people who don’t end up receiving the right life-saving treatment before attempting suicide, it’s worth second-guessing those familiar stereotypes and asking some deeper questions.

Can all of this be explained by biological differences? Or is it because men and women are socialized differently? Are men and women just wired to respond to life’s challenges in different ways?

Gender and Risk-Taking

According to our COO and President of Addiction Services Dr. Marlon Rollins, what it all boils down to is risk-taking behavior. Since 1975, men have been dying in car accidents more than twice as often as women. This explains why men might be more likely to pick up a bottle of liquor or try hard drugs when faced with difficult challenges. It also shows why women may ruminate on their troubles for a longer time without finding relief.

The thing we’re missing, Dr. Rollins points out, is that risk-taking tendencies and gender are two correlated but separate factors. Not all men are big risk-takers, and not all women are risk-averse. There are other factors that may make a person of either gender more or less likely to take a dangerous risk such as trauma, having an LGBTQ identity, diagnosis of a terminal illness, access to lethal means, veteran status and even living in a rural area.

Calculating Individual Suicide Risk

Dr. Rollins’ sister Amber Rose Rollins died by suicide in 2013 after seeking mental health treatment at the hospital where he was crisis director. She was also a registered nurse in this health system, and during treatment, they discovered she had become addicted to pain medication. Her RN license was suspended, and combined with the physical challenges of recovery, she started to lose hope. After her death, Dr. Rollins found out that Amber was denied for mental health disability each of the six times she applied. Having a substance use disorder and access to lethal means raised Amber’s risk for suicidality, then being unemployed and denied assistance was too much to bear.

The reality is that our gendered preconceptions about substance use and suicide are harmful to both men and women. We can’t assume that one type of care is more appropriate for an individual based on gender alone. What’s more, clinicians in both mental health and rehab facilities need to create environments where it’s safe to talk about suicidal ideation and actively work to end the stigma it carries. Each patient who seeks help deserves a safe space to be one hundred percent honest about how they’re feeling, especially when they are thinking about taking their own life.

Get the Help You Need

At Renewal, we do a detailed assessment of each client’s suicide risk at  , so when an individual’s risk goes up, we can revisit their safety plan and check in more frequently. Our entire staff from the clinic to the kitchen is involved in suicide safety planning so we can catch the warning signs when our clients are in despair and reach out to make each one knows they’re not alone.

If you or a loved one are looking for a safe place to recover from substance use, reach out to us today. Give us a call at (888) 226-7413.