UI research reveals gender disparities in alcoholism treatment

UI research appears to find that women and men seek alcoholic treatment services differently. Women, in particular, are less likely to seek assistance and think they can control the problem on their own.


Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams/ Photo Illustration

Annie Fitzpatrick, News Reporter

University of Iowa research has indicated there are disparities among genders in seeking treatment services for problems related to alcoholism. Specifically, the study found that women are less likely to seek help and see themselves as more independent.

UI Assistant Professor of community & behavioral health Paul Gilbert, who led the study, said his primary area of research focuses on alcohol use and the disparities that accompany it.

“We really have to have a good understanding of what’s the situation in the first place, what’s going on with any of these disparities … and the latest paper here was focusing on differences between men and women in getting help for a drinking problem,” he said.

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Gilbert said there are a number of studies that indicate women are not getting help at the “same level that men are,” and this study works to further address that.

The data came from two waves of longitudinal studies among participants with similar alcohol problems, he said, one conducted in 2000-2001 and a second in 2004-2005.

Gilbert worked to find a relationship among results in each wave, which had not been done in previous research, he said. By decreasing the time in between analyses of participants, the answers given were more accurate and made re-analyzation more successful, he said.

UI Assistant Professor Grant Brown, who worked on the study with Gilbert, said this study was important for understanding the reasons people choose whether to seek help and services.

“We can’t fix what we don’t understand,” he said. “In order to promote population health … we really have to understand what the health landscape is.”

The data collection analyzed variations in people’s experiences with alcoholic services and treatment using three categories: 12-step programs, specialty services, or other supportive services, such as a religious group. Specialty services, Gilbert said, are focused on treating substance use — typically rehabilitation in the form of impatient and outpatient treatments.

Analyzation of the data indicated that “gender disparity was larger for 12-step programs than for specialty services” among women and men. This, Gilbert said, was surprising and seemed counterintuitive.

“One of the things that jumped out was that it seemed like maybe women had a more independent and self-reliant mindset, because they were twice as likely as men to say that they didn’t get help because they thought the problem would get better … by itself,” Gilbert said.

However, Gilbert also said women may not seek help from programs like Alcoholics Anonymous because there is a “long history of criticism of inherent sexism” and that the program was originally developed for men. Though, he said, this bias has changed over the decades.

Senior behavioral health consultant Becca Don said care among genders at the UI Student Health & Wellness differs because of biological tendencies.

“Our programs are really specific to the unique individual, regardless of gender or sex. There are differences in the way biological males and females process alcohol, so sometimes that would be relevant information in an appointment,” Don said.

Gilbert said the data can be used as a resource for developing programs that help women and men in different ways to make them more successful.

“I would hope that it would raise the profile of gender differences … we should be thinking about tailoring whatever our efforts are for women or for men … in order to increase help, ” he said.

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