The findings are disturbing. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in an effort to measure substance use and abuse among women, compiled data from its National Household Survey on Drug Abuse into a new report, Substance Use Among Women in the United States, which was released in September 1997. What they found is a worrisome indicator that substance use in this country is a significant problem for women, particularly among young girls ages 10 to 14.
SAMHSA undertook the new study because previous research indicated that abuse or problem use of alcohol or illicit drugs by women is a risk factor for unprotected intercourse, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. Also of concern are the consequences of infection, unintended pregnancy, poor birth outcomes, child abuse and neglect, criminal activities, mental health disorders, and other adverse health and social consequences.
Most startling of all the statistics gathered were the increasing rates of substance use among young girls, specifically in the 10- to 14-year-old age range.
According to the report, in the 1960s, 7% of all new female alcohol users were between the ages of 10 to 14. However, by the early 1990s that number had grown, with 31% of all new female alcohol users between the ages of 10 and 14.
The outcome was similar when the statistics for marijuana use were analyzed. Among girls reporting their first use of marijuana in the 1960s, only 5% were ages 10 and14, but by the early 1990s, 24% were in this age group. The study also indicated that females generally initiated alcohol and marijuana use at later ages than males, except for the period 1991 to 1995, when the gender difference in age of first use became negligible.
Similar rates of alcohol, cigarette and illicit drug use were found among males and females between the ages of 12 and 17, although a significantly higher percentage of females than males reported the nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs (such as painkillers, tranquilizers, sedatives and stimulants) in the past year.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health
In regard to mental health and substance abuse, the statistics showed that women who were between the ages of 18 and 34, were not married, had one or more of four mental syndromes measured in the survey (major depressive episode, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia and panic attack), and had initiated substance use at an early age (15 or younger) exhibited the highest prevalence of any illicit drug use in the past year.
Women who had at least one of the four measured mental syndromes in the past year were more likely to report heavy cigarette use or heavy alcohol use within the past month or problem drug use within the past year than those who didn't. In addition, females reporting a major depressive episode in the past year were twice as likely to report heavy cigarette use and four times as likely to report problem drug use than those with no major depressive episode in the past year.
Drug Use and Crime Among Women
Not surprisingly, women who used any illicit drug in the past year were six times more likely than women who were nonusers to report having been arrested in the past year. They were also four times more likely to have engaged in criminal activity in the one-year period. However, females who were heavy alcohol or illicit drug users were less likely to have been arrested in the past year than adult male users. And female past-year users were significantly less likely to be on probation or parole.
The relationship between past-year illicit drug use and crime among the male population was similar to the women's. Male illicit drug users, though, were only three times more likely than nonusers to report having been arrested in the past year, suggesting that the association between drug use and crime is stronger for women than men.