Gender Specific Substance Abuse Treatment for Women

December 15, 2011 Kendra Sebelius

There are many reports from women who report they use drugs to help lose and maintain weight, especially by using methamphetamine, speed and cocaine. A report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse revealed that meth, the only drug which women use at rates equal to or greater than men, has become the fastest growing illicit drug of choice among young women. One of the reasons for use is related to physical appearance and weight loss.

The Healthy Steps to Freedom Program46498_156269017723349_115159648500953_508249_5577190_n

The Healthy Steps to Freedom is a 12-week supplemental health and body image program that has been designed and implemented for women in substance abuse and mental health recovery centers. It is a curriculum where participants learn the skills to improve dietary practices and family meal planning, physical activity, healthy bodies and body image satisfaction. In 2009 the 540 page manual was published and HSF was introduced into a mental health setting. In 2010 it was to be assessed to determine its efficacy in substance abuse and mental health settings.

Study Testing Efficacy of The Healthy Steps to Freedom Program

There was a recent study done at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, to test the efficacy of the supplemental health and body image curriculum designed for women in substance abuse treatment Healthy Steps to Freedom (HSF). The study recruited 124 adult women from substance abuse treatment facilities in southern Nevada to measure drug use, body dissatisfaction, eating pathology, thin-ideal internalization, and health knowledge/behaviors before and after participation in the 12-week HSF program. Results revealed that thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorder symptoms significantly decreased after HSF program participation, whereas health-related behaviors (e.g., increased healthy food consumption) and knowledge (e.g., understanding of basic nutrition, exercise) increased.

There was another study published earlier in the year, again done at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension with 114 people completing the program. It too found that the women who completed the program experienced significantly less body dissatisfaction and an increase in health knowledge. Health and body image intervention can lead to positive behavior change in women stimulant abusers.

There are of course limitations, in the sizes of the studies, and it will be interesting to see how this HSF curriculum continues to develop and help women who struggle with stimulant abuse.

Embracing a Broad Treatment Approach

I personally believe it is important to have treatments that not only treat the substance abuse, but also help treat, and heal the whole person, which includes body image, weight, eating pathology, and health knowledge as core intervention targets. For women in particular these are struggles for many, and embracing a program that helps to address these concerns will help the recovery from substance abuse.

We simply do not live in single diagnosis boxes. We are complex people, with complex struggles, triggers, coping skills, and having more curriculums to address a diverse range of issues will better help the patient in treatment. It will help women gain the skills needed to recover once out of a treatment center. We all know the real work in recovery starts the day we walk out of a residential treatment program.

Considerations and Sober Musings

When I was in IOP and residential they focused on the addiction, the addictive behavior, and replacing negative coping skills. They did not however give me tools about how to approach a healthy body image, eating struggles (in my case it was my eating disorders, and I did need specialized care that wasn’t available at the time or money). I wonder how women would benefit from counseling of body image, nutrition, and health when the reason they used drugs (or used any behavior) to lose weight.

I see this in eating disorder treatment. A person will have a psychiatrist, therapist, dietician/RD, sponsors/mentees, and perhaps even holistic body movement (yoga/pilates) and art therapy. I think the addiction community could benefit from a more integrated care, looking at an individual’s struggle and finding a curriculum to benefit the whole person.

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APA Reference
Sebelius, K. (2011, December 15). Gender Specific Substance Abuse Treatment for Women, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 23 from

Author: Kendra Sebelius

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