Men and women both experience addiction and mental illness, but do they always perceive these issues the same way?

Males and females have unique genetic makeups. From their physical attributes to their mental configurations, the way males and a females view the world is often in stark contrast with one another. The disparity in opinion can also occur when males and females discuss their views on the many topics associated with addiction.

The Recovery Village, a network of comprehensive alcohol and drug rehab facilities that also specializes in treating co-occurring disorders and mental health issues, surveyed 400 people in the United States on a number of topics, including what they believed were the roots of addiction and whether substance use disorders are hereditary. When comparing the answers from males and females, there is a significant difference for a number of questions asked, enough to specifically consider the differences in how men and women view addiction.

Do Men and Women View Addiction and Mental Illness Differently?

Of the 400 respondents, 134 said they had struggled or are struggling with addiction and 278 said that there is a history of drug or alcohol addiction in their family. However, the numbers are quite different for males and females.

Females made up 225 of the respondents, compared to 175 males. Nearly 41 percent of males said they do struggle or have struggled with addiction, compared to only 28.5 percent of female respondents. When respondents with a history of substance misuse in their family were asked which of their family members struggled with addiction, the following male-female comparisons stood out:

  • Father (37.05 percent) versus mother (17.99 percent)
  • Uncle (29.5 percent) versus aunt (17.27 percent)
  • Grandfather (17.63 percent) versus grandmother (9.35 percent)
  • Son (8.63 percent) versus daughter (6.12 percent)

These differences can be attributed to numerous factors, with one of the main factors being how early men and women experiment with drug misuse. Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that males misuse drugs at an earlier age than females in large part due to having more opportunities during adolescence. The study shows that teenage boys are more likely to be exposed to drugs and alcohol through their peer groups than teenage girls.

Tammy L. Anderson, Ph.D., from the University of Illinois Chicago, explained more of the differences in drug misuse between males and females while also explaining the history of addiction for each gender. She writes that some of the explanations in studies from the 1980s and 1990s include conforming to gender stereotypes and unequal economic, educational and social opportunities between young men and women. She cites one study that revealed, “rigid expectations of conformity to masculine and feminine identities in early adolescence was associated with increased risk of developing drug-related identities, especially for women.”

However, the disparities are not secluded just to which gender is more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Men and women also have varying views on what led to their or their family member’s substance use disorders.

The Gender Disparity in Substance Misuse

Where Does Addiction Come From?

People can develop a substance use disorder in many ways. Some people can be born dependent on substances due to exposure in the womb, which is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Other people develop a dependence for drugs through a prescription medication given to them because of an injury or chronic pain. Many people develop a drug or alcohol addiction from general misuse, which can be traced to a number of sub-factors that may include:

  • Exposure from friends or family
  • Media and celebrity influences
  • Genetics
  • Pressures from school, employment or home life

However, that list does not include the two most common answers from survey respondents.

There were 134 people who said they have suffered or currently suffer from an addiction. When asked what the biggest contributing factor was to their addiction, the leading answers were “mental illness” (35.82 percent) and “addictive personality” (32.09 percent). Medical experts have connected mental illness to substance use — with either one able to influence the development of the other — and The Recovery Village previously outlined how the two illnesses are related and where America is in terms of accepting this connection.

When viewing answers in the survey from either males or females, the results shift significantly to favor just one of the two leading choices. Nearly 55 percent of females who answered the questions said mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, was the main contributing factor to their addiction. For males, 41.43 percent believed that their addictive personalities led to building a dependency on drugs or alcohol.

A Mental Illness Comparison: Males Versus Females

So why is there such a wide gap in the answers for males and females? The increased percentage of women who attribute their addictions to a mental illness could be due to the simple fact that more women than men report suffering from mental illnesses.

According to Mental Health America, women are twice as likely to suffer from depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that women between puberty and the age of 50 are twice as likely to struggle with an anxiety disorder. These figures are attributed to a number of biological and social differences, including:

  • Women’s brains not processing serotonin as quickly as men
  • Women are more likely to have low levels of corticotropin-releasing factor, a chemical that reduces stress responses in mammals
  • Experiences with the menstrual cycle and menopause
  • Postpartum depression or infertility
  • Gender roles and general societal inequality

More results from the survey support this information. When asked to describe drug or alcohol addiction, 36 percent of women answered that “substance use disorder is a disease caused by environmental factors and experiences.” By contrast, only 30 percent of the male respondents answered that while a larger percentage (up from 15.56 percent of women to 20 percent of men) believe that “substance use disorder stems from an addictive personality.”

The Connection Between Males and Addictive Personalities

The term “addictive personality” covers a lot of ground, including many of the other answers that were available to people when they were asked what the primary factor is in their addiction. The phrase “addictive personality” is a wide-ranging term with no definitive definition, as explained in the Scientific American.

“Despite decades of attempts, no single addictive personality common to everyone with addictions has ever been found,” writes Maia Szalavitz, author of “The Addictive Personality Isn’t What You Think It Is” for The Scientific American website. “If you have come to believe that you yourself or an addicted loved one, by nature of having an addiction, has a defective or selfish personality, you have been misled. As George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told me, ‘What we’re finding is that the addictive personality if you will, is multifaceted. … It doesn’t really exist as an entity of its own.’”

So, “addictive personality” can stand for someone suffering from a mental illness, stressed from work or home-life responsibilities, or with a history of family addiction. All of these factors and all of the other known causes of addiction can be part of the equation that forms what many people refer to as an addictive personality.

Mark D. Griffiths, Ph.D., argues on Psychology Today that possessing an addictive personality “is a complete myth.”

He adds, “Even though there is good scientific evidence that most people with addictions are highly neurotic, neuroticism in itself is not predictive of addiction. In short, there is no good evidence that there is a specific personality trait (or set of traits) that is predictive of addiction and addiction alone.”

So why did a significantly higher percentage of males choose this option? Maybe it has nothing to do with believing in addictive personalities but rather not wanting to admit to having a mental illness.

The Disconnect Between Men and Mental Illness

Compared to females who took the survey, there were a significantly lower number of males who believed that mental illness was the primary cause of their addiction. Nearly 55 percent of females chose mental illness but only 18 percent of males did.

Why is that? Could the explanation be that men are more likely to suppress their suffering from a mental illness?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 5 percent of men in the United States reported suffering from a mental illness in 2015. Alisa Hrustic, of Men’, wrote in 2016 that “many therapists don’t think this number even puts a dent into how many men actually deal with depression.”

Hrustic cited Fred Rabinowitz, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California’s University of Redlands when detailing why males are less likely to admit they have a mental illness. Rabinowitz explained that men are taught during childhood to suppress any internal feelings of sadness, including depression or anxiety. Hiding stress or upset feelings can often make a mental illness even worse.

“Male depression sometimes manifests through the ‘male code’ that says you cannot show weakness, sadness, or vulnerability,” says Rabinowitz.

Mental illness is a grave problem in the U.S. and all across the world. Removing the stigma associated with this disease is one of the first steps in raising people’s awareness of their own vulnerability and suffering. Too many men and women suppress their stress from work, home-life struggles, financial limitations or other burdens. Not facing this struggle properly can lead to a worsening mental illness, which could result in relying on substance misuse for self-treatment.

The Recovery Village provides rehabilitation facilities in five states and has a qualified team of doctors, nurses, counselors and more to help people safely move beyond addiction. Along with quality care and treatment through each step of the process, The Recovery Village can also help people face co-occurring disorders that might accompany addiction. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, a personality disorder or another of the many common mental illnesses people struggle with each day, understanding the problem and learning effective coping strategies can lead to a healthier future.

a man in a purple shirt smiling at the camera.
Editor – Devin Golden
Devin Golden has worked for various print and digital news organizations. Devin's family has been affected by addiction and mental health disorders, which is a large part of why he wants to help others who have either directly or indirectly been affected by these diseases. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.