A 35-year-old mother — let’s call her Maria — is prescribed painkillers after having a cesarean section in order to give birth to her third child. The pills ease her pain and allow her to resume her usual activities, including taking care of her newborn.
She never thought she could become addicted. When she ran out of the drug, she managed to get a refill. But when she asked the third time, her doctors told her that if she was still in pain, she should switch to an over-the-counter medication. Maria couldn’t transition to aspirin or Tylenol, though. Soon, she was using grocery money to buy pills on the black market. When her budget could no longer sustain that expense, she found a way to buy cheaper heroin. Maria knew she was addicted but couldn’t bring herself to seek treatment.
This type of scenario happens all too often. Our country is in the grip of an opioid epidemic that we are only recently starting to try to find ways to address.
One of the groups that is most at risk from this opioid crisis is women, especially those over the age of 30. Not only does this demographic get prescribed more opioids than other groups, they also face unique challenges when it comes to seeking treatment.
Drug use and addiction is physically different for women than it is for men. Women tend to experience a phenomenon known as telescoping when it comes to addictive substances, including opioids, as noted by a study published in the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America. This term refers to the fact that drug use tends to progress more quickly to dependence among women than among men.
The study also notes that research suggests women might also be more susceptible to relapsing after treatment. This is exacerbated by the fact that women are more likely to experience mood and anxiety disorders than men.
Issues Beyond the Addiction
It’s not as simple, at least for women, as walking into rehab to get help for addiction. It’s more than just the dependency that has to be addressed. Perhaps because of the fact that women progress to addiction faster, they tend to have more past and current physical and mental health conditions than men in similar situations do.
Women are also more likely to experience abuse — physical, sexual and other forms. One study found that rates of physical and sexual abuse among women seeking substance abuse treatment are as high as 55% to 99%. This risk is greater if women buy drugs on the street, an access route many take when their prescriptions run out. When pills become too expensive, women may turn to less expensive heroin. Heroin is, of course, dangerous on its own, but it’s also often laced with other more potent drugs like fentanyl.
These complications can lead to fewer women seeking treatment. They might feel they can’t leave an abusive relationship, or they might fear that abuse will continue or worsen during treatment. Mental health issues that come along with addiction may make seeking treatment more difficult. The combination of these other issues along with the drugs might make some women think that treatment won’t work or isn’t worthwhile.
When it comes down to it, addiction treatment for men is not the same as addiction treatment for women. Women’s treatment needs to take into account the unique health concerns that a woman may present when she comes to ask for help. Recovery professionals need to be prepared for any potential trauma that the patient may have experienced, and they need to create a recovery program that fits their female patient’s needs.
Concerns About Children
Women may also hesitate to seek help if they have children. A mother might not have anyone to take care of the children while they seek treatment, especially during a multi-day detox program. One potential solution to this problem is choosing a program that welcomes the children of those seeking treatment. Losing custody, particularly to an abusive spouse or partner, may also be a concern.
It is up to us to advocate not just for women, but for all people suffering from addiction. Collectively, we need to stop criminalizing addiction and make it easier for both men and women to seek help, including those who have children. New prescribing procedures need to be created and enforced to reduce the number of people becoming addicted because of the over-prescribing of opioids that has facilitated this crisis.