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Opioid Abuse and Drug Overdoses Are Increasing Among Women

opioid addiction treatment for women in connecticut

Historically, drug abuse and addiction research has been very male-focused. Men, in general, are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs. Men have also shown consistently higher rates of substance use than women nationwide. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, however, women are just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder. And their rates of drug abuse are increasing.

In July 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration shared some insight on the growing opioid epidemic – particularly among female demographics – and the narrowing gap between male and female opioid abuse. According to the report, prescription opioid deaths increased 583 percent among women from 1999 to 2016, versus 404 percent among men. Opioid abuse among women of all ages is growing fast.

But this is just the beginning. Just last month in January 2019, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a statement about the alarming rise of drug overdose deaths among women today – particularly amidst the opioid epidemic. Most significantly, the drug overdose death rate among women between 30- and 64-years old climbed a staggering 260 percent from 1999 to 2017.

Why are drug abuse and overdose rates climbing among women? Some experts suggest that it’s the expectations of women at work, and then at home, that are leading to added stress. Women often feel like they need to wear all hats, and be all things to all people, which creates a lot of pressure. Some believe it’s the changing roles of women in society – and the current societal norms – that are contributing to the rise of mental health issues (like addiction, depression, and anxiety) among women. Some cite other factors and reasons for turning to drugs, such as the notion that women are more susceptible to pain stimuli.

Fact is, women have unique experiences biologically and in life, and therefore have unique pathways to arriving at drug use – pathways very different from their male counterparts. One essay published by Yale medical researchers explains that the pathway to opioid use for women is more likely to be through medical treatment, than it is for men. In other words, women are more often prescribed opioids – painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin – by a doctor. “The main reason for prescribing opioids is to treat pain, and population-based studies suggest women are at increased risk for pain and more sensitive to the aversive aspects of most painful stimuli,” they explain. Women are at higher risk for chronic, painful illnesses and are better candidates for prescription painkillers as a result. They also use prescription opioids for longer periods, and in higher doses, according to the Office on Women’s Health.

There is also some evidence that women become addicted to substances more quickly, as women can use drugs in much smaller amounts than men and for much less time before they become addicted. Not only this, but women are generally more susceptible to drug cravings and relapse – placing them at greater risk for overdose.

According the recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, from 1999 to 2017, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids increased 492 percent among women – with every age group increasing. The rate of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (e.g. fentanyl) increased over one-thousand percent among ages 30 to 64 during this same timeframe. While we know that overdose rates grew the most among older women, younger female populations are still at high risk. Research shows that young people have a significantly high risk of fatally overdosing on drugs, due to their stages of physical and brain development.

The question remains, what can be done about this?

Because women have unique experiences with substance abuse – the way they initiate drugs, the way their body responds to drugs, their drug habits – they also require a very unique treatment approach. Gender-specific drug treatment for women is fully equipped with clinicians who are specifically trained to work with women battling addiction. They understand that drug abuse among women often stems from trauma, hurtful or stressful relationships, as well as prescription dependence. In an all-female treatment setting, women are also more likely to open up and get to the root of their problems – a key step in the treatment process – and confront any shame, guilt, or low self-esteem that contributes to ongoing use.

Whether it is you, or your loved one – a sister, a daughter, a friend or partner – battling a drug or mental health problem, it is important to reach out for help. The risks of substance abuse among women are high, and the overdose rates are on the rise. Yet many women do not seek help, due to the stigma that addiction carries, the fear of what others might think, and also lifestyle obstacles, such as work and childcare. You can be the difference in your loved one’s life, and help her find the support that she deserves. For more information about women and substance abuse, or to learn about Turnbridge’s evidence-based treatment programs for women, please do not hesitate to reach out. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.