Addiction is a chronic health issue, and it’s one that can affect anyone. So, do women struggle with addiction just like anyone else? Of course they do. Addiction isn’t limited by gender, age, socioeconomic status or race.
These factors influence how and why they use drugs, and how addiction develops, but they don’t leave any one person protected or another person unable to recover. Women are strong, but they aren’t immune to addiction. They face unique treatment challenges, but can build happy, healthy lives in recovery.
The Opioid Epidemic is Growing Among Women
We don’t often hear about how opioids affect women specifically,but if you are one of the many women struggling with an addiction to opioids or other substances, or if you’ve experienced a health crisis, you aren’t struggling alone. “Between 1999 and 2015, the rate of deaths from prescription opioid overdoses increased 471 percent among women, compared to an increase of 218 percent among men, and heroin deaths among women increased at more than twice the rate than among men,” according to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH).1 More women struggle with opioid addiction every year, and when that struggle isn’t addressed with the right professional help, it can have serious consequences.
Why Are Women Hit Harder by Opioid Effects Than Men?
Opioid addiction and overdose is unfortunately common among women. As ABC News explains, “Middle-aged women are prescribed more opioids than any other group – twice as many as middle-aged men – making them particularly vulnerable to opioid abuse.”2 One reason why is because women have more frequent and easier access to painkillers. They may be handed a prescription by a medical doctor rather than offered personal attention and alternative treatment options. This access to opioids combined with viewing opioids as the answer to any and all physical and mental health concerns are risk factors.
Differences in body composition, metabolism, hormones and other biological factors change how drugs affect women’s bodies and minds. But again, these differences aren’t always considered when a doctor writes a prescription or a friend offers some leftover medication. Although there hasn’t been much research done on how opioids affect men and women differently, studies on other drugs shed some light.
The OWH explains, “Women often become intoxicated after fewer drinks and in a shorter amount of time than men … In addition, evidence shows that women develop heart and nerve damage and cirrhosis after fewer years of heavy drinking than men, as well as experience more lung damage than male smokers. These physiological differences between the sexes may also put women at a higher risk for medical problems associated with substance use disorders.”
For these and other reasons, we often experience “telescoping” which causes us to, “become physically dependent on opioid pain medication more quickly than men.” It also means we begin to experience addiction and its consequences faster and often to a greater degree than men. It’s important for anyone and everyone to get professional addiction help, but it becomes even more of an immediate health concern for women.
What’s the Relationship Between Addiction and Mental Health?
Women also need urgent help and support because their addictions are rarely stand-alone problems. Many women face depression, anxiety and trauma while facing opioid addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse shares, “As many as 6 in 10 substance abusers also have at least one other mental disorder.”3 A disproportionate number of women struggle with these concerns. The World Health Organization (WHO) explains, “Gender differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders – depression, anxiety and somatic complaints. These disorders, in which women predominate, affect approximately 1 in 3 people in the community and constitute a serious public health problem. Unipolar depression, predicted to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020, is twice as common in women.”4
So why do women experience more, and often more severe, mental health issues? The WHO reports that women experience more trauma and violence than men. We often feel trapped because of our social status, responsibilities, financial dependence or our lack of access to valuable resources and education.4 Women face many challenges, and are expected to be strong in the face of them. Yet, they are often too much for any one person to handle alone. Many may feel they can’t speak up, so they turn to drugs and alcohol. However there is another choice. You don’t choose to become addicted, but you can choose to get help for yourself and your family.
What’s the Connection Between Addiction and Family?
We care deeply for those around us. We may not realize how this affects our mental health and drug use or how our mental health and drug use then affect others. Of course, caring isn’t a bad thing,but when we spend all our time caring for children, significant others, parents, siblings and friends, we don’t leave time for ourselves. We come to feel like we can’t take time for ourselves, don’t need it or have better things to do. The truth is, there isn’t anything more important than getting the care you need. Ultimately, you have to be happy and healthy before you can support anyone else. Treatment teaches you how to balance your love and care for others with love and care for yourself.
Addiction and our roles in our families and communities share another connection, stigmas. The society around us adds the burden of stigma to the burden of addiction. We’re often judged simply for wanting to get better and build better lives. Men face stigmas too, but it isn’t the same. Psychology Today explains, “Both men and women are harshly judged for having an addiction, but addicted women face even greater stigmas, which keeps many from getting the help they need.
Women take on many roles and responsibilities, often including the role of primary caretaker of young children, which can add another layer of shame and judgment.”5 Stigmas can influence your decision to get help, but it doesn’t have to. Stigmas are slowly waning — and this is happening in large part because brave women are speaking up and advocating for the real, effective treatment they need.
Does Treatment Work for Women?
Of course, women have to find personalized, integrated care just like anyone else,but once they find the treatment providers that offer this care, they can begin recovery. For instance, look at statistics from Michael’s House. After participating in treatment, women are less likely to drink or use drugs months after residential treatment has ended.Many women also reported developing better relationships with their family,feeling better physically and having fewer medical problems. Their mental health and outlook on life also improved.
Part of the reason some women haven’t experienced recovery success in the past is because they’re getting treatment meant for men. Addiction is a universal disease, but treatment can’t be one-size-fits-all. With the right help, we all have the strength and ability to recover. However women have different needs from men, and each woman has different needs from each other. This is why the National Institute on Drug Abuse considers the following to be defining features of effective treatment: “…[T]reatment must address the individual’s drug abuse and any associated medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal problems. It is also important that treatment be appropriate to the individual’s age, gender, ethnicity, and culture.”6
Treatment teaches you to be you. It teaches you your strengths and how to draw on them. It shows you where you may need extra support or information — and then gives them to you. It can offer parenting classes, life skills training, family therapy and even career education. It teaches you to advocate for exactly what you need.
How Do We Access Addiction Help?
If women get the right treatment, they get better. But how do they get the help they need, especially if that help feels unavailable or out of reach? How does she access effective, compassionate care? How does she set aside her responsibilities and concerns so that she can ultimately tackle these issues better and with greater long-term success? First, don’t let yourself feel defeated before you even start. Once you get the ball rolling, everything begins to fall into place.
The first step can be calling our helpline to talk with an admissions coordinator about Michael’s House. We offer integrated treatment tailored to a woman’s unique recovery needs within our Women’s Program. We will help you identify and then step over your stumbling blocks to treatment. We can walk you through all the details, like exploring insurance coverage, arranging childcare and scheduling travel and time off from work.
Once you make the first call, we make the rest simple. You don’t have to have every question answered ahead of time. You don’t have to have every — or even any — detail prepared before you call. It’s your turn to be taken care of, to be supported. As you take steps toward building a better life free from opioid addiction, let us hold your hand and help you start the new life you want.
By Alanna Hilbink, Contributing Writer
1 “Final Report: Opioid Use, Misuse, and Overdose in Women.” Office on Women’s Health. 19 Jul. 2017. Accessed 19 Mar. 2018.
2 Thorbecke, Catherine. “Middle-Aged Women Prescribed the Most Opioids, Report Finds.” ABC News. 26 Sep. 2017. Accessed 17 Mar. 2018.
3 Volkow, Nora. “Addiction and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. 1 Feb. 2007. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
4 “Gender and Women’s Mental Health.” World Health Organization. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
5 Sack, David. “6 Myths About Women and Addiction.” Psychology Today. 18 APr. 2017. Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.
6 “Principles of Effective Treatment.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Jan. 2018. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.