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Women and Substance Abuse

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LOUISVILLE Just as gender plays a role in risk factors for disease and medical treatment options, it also plays a role in substance abuse. Men have higher rates of addiction to illicit drugs and alcohol. However, women are more likely to experience trauma, abuse, and the co-morbidities that increase the risks for substance abuse and make treatment more difficult.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2010, 11.2 percent of men and 6.8 percent of women ages 12 and older were illicit drug users. During that same period, 57.4 percent of men and 46.5 percent of women ages 12 and older were current drinkers. In 2007, the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated 32.3 percent of the 1.8 million admissions to drug/alcohol treatment in the US were women.

Paula Porter, LCSW, clinical director of the Morton Center, says these statistics are realities they experience every day in their treatment of people with substance abuse issues. “Women tend to suffer more consequences earlier with their drinking and using, and they usually come into treatment with different priorities. A lot of what is unique with women are their caregiving roles and how that has a lot of stress and responsibility … Women are harder to keep in treatment because of these responsibilities,” says Porter.

One of Porter’s areas of expertise is trauma, and the Morton Center has four staff members trained in trauma counseling. For women, this can be childhood or sexual abuse or partner violence, but it can also be witnessing a traumatic event or growing up in an unstable home. One of the techniques they utilize is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). “Originally created to treat Vietnam veterans, EMDR has been proven to decrease the effects of trauma,” says Porter. The theory behind EMDR is that traumatic memories get lodged in our brain. The technique uses a bilateral eye movement or brain signal to help individuals process the trauma on through. The technique is used over several sessions until the disturbance goes down.

Recognizing that the challenges and priorities of recovery are different based on gender, the Morton Center has created an ongoing recovery group just for women who have been in treatment, either at their center or elsewhere. “For women, the number one issue is relationships. They are barriers and assets for women getting and staying sober,” says Porter.

Family Matters

Whether family is a barrier or an asset in treatment, they are pivotal in the recovery process. At the Morton Center, all of their treatment is family-focused, providing services for the person struggling with abuse and their family, including spouses, children, even friends. “Nowhere else in the community has the family support we do,” says Morton Center CEO Priscilla McIntosh.

The Morton Center’s resource center fields incoming calls from anyone asking questions or seeking guidance. If the person is a loved one, they can schedule an appointment with a therapist. If it is the individual struggling with substance abuse, they will schedule an initial assessment.

Porter says often it is a family member who contacts them first. Free educational programming for families at the Morton Center includes programs such as “Concerned Persons,” a 10-week program that provides an extensive education on addiction.

To meet the needs of the community, the Morton Center has expanded the options of their intensive outpatient program for substance abusers, offering three different levels. Their most intensive treatment program is 60 hours – 12 hours a week for five weeks. While most programs engage family members only once a week, at the Morton Center family can participate in about 53 of those 60 hours. “We know that if we can get the family engaged in our intensive program in at least two sessions out of 53 hours, the completion rate for the individual goes up by more than three times. That’s how significant family involvement is,” says Porter.

Because children are not immune to the effects of substance abuse, the center has an art therapist and a social worker who work with children ages five and up. Often they work with the child while the mother or parent is undergoing treatment. “For every four children, there is one who has some type of struggle with substance abuse in the home,” says McIntosh. With 97,000 students enrolled in Jefferson County, Kentucky schools, that means about 25,000 kids in Louisville alone are affected.

Adolescents and Addiction

The Morton Center has a full complement of adolescent treatment services for those starting to experiment, to full-blown substance abuse. Education is a key component of the program, particularly for the parent or guidance counselor who needs to know how to talk about these issues. Parents are a critical piece in the process, and siblings 13 and older are welcomed into the group to try and prevent the pattern from repeating.

In the ages 19–26 population, the Morton Center has seen the effects of the crackdown on prescription drug abuse with an increase in heroin use. “Where it was $240 per day for prescription pills, now it’s $30 for the same high. That’s where we’ve seen an increase, especially in the younger age group,” says McIntosh.

On average, an individual seeks treatment seven times for heroin addiction. With relapse rates so high and so deadly, the Morton Center has “heightened their responsiveness,” says Porter, and created additional avenues for people to seek treatment, such as the resource center and walkin hours. Their goal is to get people in for an initial assessment within a couple of days.

On the Lookout

According to Porter, there are things physicians can look for to help identify substance abuse problems in their patients. Blood pressure problems, indigestion, and gastrointestinal problems can be signs. She advises physicians to be vigilant for collateral information from family members who attend appointments and to be sure to ask questions directly – “What is your alcohol intake? Are you using any kind of illicit drugs?”

The Morton Center is currently undergoing a rebranding effort. The new tagline – Restoring Self and Preserving Family – reflects their commitment to treating everyone affected by chemical dependency. In the end, McIntosh says it’s really about “getting individuals in the community back to their best.”