Opiate overdose deaths among women have increased 400% in the last decade.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), 1,287 female opiate addicts died in 1999 and 6,631 died in 2010. This rate is alarming. When broken down, the statistic means that 42 women died each day from a drug overdose, and 18 of those deaths are directly attributed to prescription painkillers.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, told NBC’s TODAY that, “Prescription painkiller deaths have skyrocketed in women. Stopping this epidemic in women — and in men — is everyone’s business. Doctors need to be cautious about prescribing and patients about using these drugs.”
What are Prescription Painkillers?
Opioids are pharmaceutically manufactured versions of opiates, or narcotic painkillers, like heroin, morphine, methadone, and codeine. You may be more familiar with the names pharmaceutical companies give the drugs: Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Percocet, Demerol, and Norco.
These drugs are not safer than “street drugs”, like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines, just because they come in a nice pill form and are prescribed by doctors. As evident by a 400% increase in overdose deaths among women alone, the true dangers of these highly addictive drugs are rarely known and fully understood.
What Makes Opiates So Dangerous?
For starters, prescription drugs do not have the same stigma surrounding them as illegal “street drugs.” There actually seems to be an almost romantic attitude around the use of pain pills that attracts many people to their use. Instead of seeing Vicodin, for example, for what it is, a manmade form of heroin, users view the drug as a simple way to reduce pain, not realizing that the high they get and the lack of pain is seriously altering their body and brain’s normal functioning.
Further, the ease of use when just popping a pill stays disconnected from the drug’s effects. In other words, when you open a pill bottle and swallow a few it is a completely different experience than shooting heroin with a needle. Pill popping does not seem like drug abuse, so when paired with the drugs’ highly addictive chemical composition, use quickly progresses to abuse and addiction. Opiates are arguably the hardest class of drugs to stop using once physical dependence and addiction have occurred.
How Can We Best Help These Women?
Gender-specific substance abuse treatment is the first step because women need different care while getting clean.
Our society puts pressure on women to look a certain way and still perform in a career while running a household. The expectations can be more than one woman can handle. The unique set of stressors in daily life need to be addressed, and women need other women while working toward recovery. The safety and support provided in an all-female peer group has proven very helpful for opiate addicts who would otherwise stay isolated.
A history of trauma, often in the form of abuse, is more common among female than male addicts. The pain of the past is virtually erased when using an opiate painkiller, so it takes certain consideration and encouragement for a female opiate addict to stop using.
With appropriate treatment, the skyrocketing number of opiate overdose deaths in women can be reduced.
Kate Green is committed to helping people in recovery, learn more about her work at Balboa Horizons by reading her blog.