The United States is in the midst of an opioid crisis. As of June 2017, more than 90 people in the United States die every day from opioid overdoses. While some of these deaths result from the use of illegal opioids like heroin, many of them are due to the use of prescription painkillers. Research has also found that women are disproportionately more affected by this crisis than men.
The United States is the leader in opioid consumption — more than 80 percent of the prescription opioids produced worldwide are prescribed and consumed in the United States. In addition to this, women between the ages of 40 and 59 take more prescription opioid pain relievers than any other demographic in the country. This age group also has the highest rate of opioid deaths when compared to other female age brackets.
Women in this age bracket also get more opioid prescriptions for otherwise simple procedures.
More prenatal use
Women aren’t the only ones being affected by this rise in opioid use. The number of infants born with indicators of prenatal opioid use is also on the rise — between 2000 and 2009, the number increased from 1.19 per 1,000 births to 5.63. In 2012 alone, more than 20,000 babies were born showing signs of opioid withdrawal.
Drug use during pregnancy has been shown to cause a variety of pre- and postnatal problems, from premature birth and miscarriage to birth defects, low birth weight and an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome after birth. While there are programs available for pregnant mothers suffering from addiction to seek help, many choose not to enroll for fear of having their infants taken from them after birth.
Less help available
Women, especially those with children, are often reluctant to ask for help during the treatment of their addiction for fear of the repercussions. Even women who know they have a problem are afraid to ask for help because they are afraid government officials will take their children away while they are trying to get help for themselves.
It is also challenging for women in difficult financial situations to get help — without good insurance, addiction treatment can often be too expensive for the people who need it. Mental health resources are difficult to obtain unless you already have the means to do so, and the options available for low-income women or families are often insufficient or too overloaded to take on new patients.
Abuse and comorbidity
Substance abuse isn’t the only problem that occurs with women who are experiencing opioid addictions. Research has shown women who have been the subject of domestic violence are up to 15 times more likely to turn to alcohol and nine times more likely to turn to drugs than women who have not been abused. The risk also becomes higher if both partners abuse drugs or alcohol.
There is also the risk of comorbidity — when substance abuse exists at the same time as other mental illnesses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that men who suffer from substance abuse are more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, while women in these situations are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or mood disorders.
Opioid addictions are affecting thousands of people in the U.S., no matter their gender, income level or career. Women are at a higher risk for opioid addictions, due mostly to the fact that their doctors often prescribe them more opioids.
Some posit that this is due to the inherent sexism in medicine that we have seen to be present in many cases. Many male doctors, and sometimes even female ones, have acquired an innate, ingrained assumption that women are more “dramatic” than men.
If a woman comes in complaining of pain, it is likely she’ll be sent away with either some kind of vaguely explained prescription, or nothing at all. Many women cite how incredibly loosely doctors were willing to hand out medications to them. On the flip side, women are also more likely to go to the doctor when they experience symptoms than men are. This is, again, a result of patriarchal masculinity standards that set men up to think that recognizing pain is a weakness, and that they should just “tough it out.”
Regardless of the reasons, we know the U.S. is in the grip of a very serious opioid crisis, as well as problems with the way the health care system operates in general. People are finally waking up to it, but it will likely take a good bit of time before we see major changes made.