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Navigating the Opioid Crisis: Strategies for Women's Recovery

Navigating the Opioid Crisis: Strategies for Women’s Recovery

Over 16 million people globally and 2.1 million in the United States have opioid use disorder (OUD). Moreover, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, more than 75% of drug-related overdose deaths have involved opioids. The statistics highlight the depth of the opioid crisis that has taken its toll on entire communities all over the world. 

Yet, addressing the opioid crisis faces challenges when the specific needs of underserved groups are not fully explored. Women, like other underserved communities, have been underrepresented in examining the therapeutic tools needed to end the opioid crisis. Therefore, understanding the role gender can play in OUD can give insight into how to support lasting recovery for women.

Further, women experience specific life stressors and barriers that can impede the recovery process. Difficulty coping with life stressors and structural disadvantages can contribute to profound psychological distress. When you feel overwhelmed by distress, it becomes easier to engage in maladaptive coping mechanisms like self-medicating with substances. Thus, having access to holistic treatment options can support addressing the specific needs of women in the opioid crisis. 

At New Creation Recovery, we know the physical and psychological makeup of women can increase challenges with drug addiction. Addiction alone can have a devastating impact on every area of your life. Whether it is daily functioning, your relationships, professional goals, or academic goals, addiction can impede your life. However, as a woman, the challenges of addiction and other mental health challenges are compounded. 

As a result, we are committed to providing an individualized treatment plan to address your specific needs for healing within the opioid crisis. Through a holistic approach to care, we offer the opportunity for whole-person care that acknowledges and engages in gender-responsive treatment. Thus, at New Creation Recovery, you can find gender-specific care in a “women-only rehabilitation center near me.”

Yet, you may question the difference between opioid addiction and other types of substance misuse. What makes the opioid crisis particularly detrimental to the well-being of women? Increasing your understanding of OUD will give more insight into its impact on women.

What Is Opioid Use Disorder?

As MedlinePlus notes, opioids are a type of drug that can be synthetic or made from an opium plant. Some well-known opioids include prescription medications like fentanyl, oxycodone, and illicit drugs like heroin. In particular, opioids are often prescribed as a pain medication for major injuries and surgery or conditions like cancer and chronic pain. As a result, the opioid crisis is deeply rooted in the misuse of prescription opioids. Therefore, the weight of the opioid crisis becomes clear in the challenges of pain and medication management. 

It can be difficult to recognize that you are engaging in substance misuse when you are attempting to manage medical challenges. You may even question how you could misuse your legal prescription, especially when your usage need is real. In reality, recognizing misuse of opioids can be difficult when you base your use on feeling and not feeling pain. Listed below are some of the ways you can recognize your misuse of opioids:

  • Taking more than the prescribed dosage
  • You take your medication more frequently
  • Taking your medication to alter your mental state
  • You are taking someone else’s opioid prescription

When opioids are misused, your substance use can develop into OUD, which can cause significant impairments and prolonged distress that disrupts daily life and relationships. In addition to developing OUD, opioid misuse has increased the prevalence of other challenges within the opioid crisis:

  • Higher rates of overdose and overdose deaths related to opioid use
  • More exposure and use of illicit opioids like heroin
  • Increased use of opioids among pregnant women
    • Additional health risks for mothers and babies

Looking at the additional consequences of opioid misuse and OUD showcases the unique challenges of the opioid crisis for women. Thus, deepening your awareness of women’s relationship with opioids will increase your understanding of the opioid crisis and its impact on women.

The Prevalence of the Opioid Crisis for Women

Historically, substances have been more frequently misused by men than women. Thus, perspectives on who misuses substances and who is more likely to develop substance use disorder (SUD) have been skewed. Through narrow perceptions of SUD, more research and treatment programs have been designed with the needs of men in mind. Further, the biased male focus on SUD has also been seen in the opioid crisis, despite the long history women have with medical-based substance misuse. 

As stated in “Women, Opioid Use and Addiction” by Teddy G. Goetz, et al., women have been exposed primarily to opioids through medical treatment. The prescription-based exposure to opioids for women shares a correlation with the opioid crisis roots. Much research suggests that the opioid crisis has been precipitated by an increase in opioid prescriptions for pain management in the non-Hispanic White population of the United States. 

Despite the relationship between the opioid crisis and pain management prescriptions with the prevalence of pain relief medication used by women, women have been underrepresented in treatment for OUD. Therefore, looking at differences in sex and gender roles can provide insight into the opioid crisis from the perspective of women.

Impact of Sex and Gender Roles in the Opioid Crisis

The prevalence of opioid prescriptions for pain management can be seen in the sex and gender differences of women. According to the Kanas Board of Pharmacy, women have an increased risk factor for opioid misuse and addiction due to pain perception and relief differences:

  • Perception of pain: Women may perceive pain with a greater intensity than men
    • Women are more likely to experience conditions that can lead to acute and chronic pain
      • Osteoarthritis and arthritis
      • Injuries from intimate partner violence (IPV)
      • Surgeries: rotator cuff, hysterectomy, and colectomy
      • Depression
    • Healthcare providers perceive women’s pain differently
      • More likely to be prescribed opioids when seeking pain-related treatment: Women receive 65% of opioid prescriptions 
      • Women are more likely to be prescribed opioids with medications that increase the risk of overdose
        • Benzodiazepines and opioids are depressants that significantly slow down breathing
    • It is considered more socially acceptable for women to verbalize pain issues
  • Pain relief: The opioid receptors in the brain respond differently to opioids for women and men
    • Experiencing pain relief is slower for women
      • Increases the risk of overuse
      • More rapid development of OUD compared to men, even when using lower doses for a shorter period
    • Women are more likely to experience opioid overdose
      • Opioid-related overdose deaths have the highest occurrence among women ages 55-64

The perception of pain and experience of pain relief highlight some of the sex and gender-based challenges of the opioid crisis. Specifically, different stages of life for women have a stronger correlation with pain-related conditions. Women of childbearing age and older women, in particular, are at a greater risk for OUD and opioid-related overdose and death. As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes, opioid misuse and OUD among women increases with age:

  • 12 to 17 years old
    •  1.5% (or 181,000 people) misuse opioids in a given year
    • 0.3% (or 36,000 people) had OUD in a given year
  • 18 to 25 years old
    • 4.5% (or 746,000 people) misuse opioids in a given year
    • 1.0% (or 165,000 people) had OUD in a given year
  • 26 years and older
    • 3.7% (or 4.2 million people) misuse opioids in a given year
    • 1.2% (or 1.3 million people) had OUD in a given year

The increased use of opioids among adults and older women reflects the importance of gender differences in the opioid crisis. Digging deeper into the biological and psychosocial factors of opioids for women can expand your understanding of gender-specific needs. Listed below are some of the sex and gender-specific risk factors that contribute to increasing risk in the opioid crisis for women:

  • Higher prevalence of pain
  • Greater exposure to trauma
    • Disproportionate exposure to interpersonal violence
    • Frequent exposure to childhood trauma
    • More likely to experience sexual violence
  • Increased risk for mental health disorders
  • Women are more likely to use opioids to self-medicate for life stressors and psychological distress
    • Gender inequality 

Further, the gender-specific risk factors for opioid use showcase some of the barriers to addressing the needs of women in the opioid crisis.

Addressing Barriers to Opioid Treatment for Women

Many gender-based inequalities and assumptions impede access to treatment for women in the opioid crisis. For example, many treatment services throughout the opioid crisis have only mentioned or focused on pregnant women. The risk for mother and child with rising substance-related deaths in pregnancy and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is important to address. 

However, many treatment programs do not acknowledge the needs of women beyond their roles as mothers and caregivers. In reality, all women regardless of pregnancy and childrearing face barriers to seeking treatment for OUD. The opioid crisis is just one example of the disparities women experience in health, wellness, and every other public and private sphere of life. 

Despite the effectiveness and availability of medications for OUD (MOUD), countless structural and social barriers impede access to care. A majority of people face challenges receiving effective support for opioid misuse and OUD in the opioid crisis due to barriers like stigma. As stated in Frontiers in Public Health, some of the treatment barriers and disparities people face in the opioid crisis include:

  • Limited or no health insurance 
  • Lack of treatment facilities that accept your insurance
  • High out-of-pocket costs for treatment
  • Limited or no access to reliable transportation
  • Stigma prevents people from seeking treatment
  • Unhoused/homelessness 
  • Incarceration

In addition to common barriers and disparities found in the opioid crisis, women experience unique challenges to treatment and recovery. Pregnant and non-pregnant women face specific barriers to seeking and receiving treatment for OUD based on different social contexts. Regarding pregnancy and parenting, women experience barriers based on their pregnancy status and roles as caregivers. 

As noted in “Barriers and Motivators to Opioid Treatment Among Suburban Women Who Are Pregnant and Mothers in Caregiver Roles” by Miriam Boeri, et al., women of childbearing age must simultaneously juggle SUD, pregnancy, and parenting. Women must face the daily challenges of motherhood as primary caregivers, but also the stigma that surrounds gender, motherhood, and SUD. 

Listed below are some of the barriers and challenges that hinder seeking and receiving treatment for mothers with OUD: 

  • Women fear they will lose custody of their children if they enter treatment
  • Loss of custody increases self-stigma through feelings of guilt and shame
  • Fear of  SUD stigma and social expectations discourages seeking treatment and treatment engagement
  • Increased surveillance and stigmatization by medical staff and law enforcement 
  • Resource challenges: transportation, childcare services, social support, socioeconomic status, insurance
  • Access to treatment: discrimination and stereotypes, geographical isolation, lack of treatment programs for women with children, unstable housing, and long wait lists for women from low-income minority communities
  • Unaddressed co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Relational conflict: IPV and dysfunctional family unit

The gender-based disparities showcase unique barriers pregnant and childrearing women face in the opioid crisis compared to men. Further, non-pregnant women experience similar structural barriers to treatment and recovery based on gender biases. In addition to gender-based barriers to entering treatment, women also face barriers to receiving effective treatment. According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, sustained engagement with MOUD like buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone can lead to positive health outcomes. Some of the ways MOUD can support dismantling the opioid crisis include:

  • Decrease opioid use
  • Reduce the risk of overdose and death
  • Fewer risk for infectious diseases
  • Reduce engagement with the criminal justice system

Despite the potential benefits of MOUD for disrupting the opioid crisis, women are hindered from MOUD engagement through different barriers. Listed below are some of the different barriers to MOUD engagement women face in the opioid crisis:

  • Interpersonal and community-based social stigma
    • Little or no support from family and friends
    • Community social stigma: unable to shake substance-using identity in community settings
      • Workplace settings: experiences with and fear of discrimination based on MOUD status
      • Social media: exposure to prejudiced comments and ideas about SUD, MOUD, and recovery
      • Hierarchies in treatment and recovery settings: stigma among women identifies women with OUD and MOUD engagement as lesser
  • Fear, perceptions, and experiences with MOUD pharmacotherapies
    • Perceived fear of side effects and medication synergies:
      • Physical side effects like weight gain and tooth decay contribute to low self-esteem 
      • Damping MOUD efficacy from mental health medications
    • Unrealistic expectations of treatment duration:
      • Quoted for a shorter-term treatment stay compared to actual needs for treatment
      • Concerned about the long-term use of MOUD and the inability to get off MOUD
      • Lack of information to make an informed choice on what medication to take
    • Opioid-specific provider mistrust:
      • Increase mistrust due to the relationship between providers prescribing opioids and the opioid crisis
      • Fear stemming from concerns about provider relationships with the pharmaceutical industry

The complexities of the opioid crisis, especially for women, have created difficult-to-untangle barriers between clients, clinicians, and staff. However, supporting the treatment needs for OUD and MOUD among women is possible. Through education and communication, many barriers to OUD treatment and recovery for women can be dismantled.

Dismantling the Opioid Crisis at New Creation Recovery

There are a variety of therapeutic tools that can be used to dismantle barriers to opioid treatment for women. Through a holistic approach and evidence-based treatment, you can rebuild trust with providers and find a sense of safety in treatment settings. With an individualized Christian rehab treatment program, you can uncover the sense of community you need to thrive in recovery. 

The community you can find in opioid addiction treatment reminds you that you are worthy of recovery and that healing is unique to you. Therefore, at New Creation Recovery, we are committed to providing gender-responsive care in our Christian-based drug rehab for women. With our Christian-based recovery programs, you have access to holistic care to heal the whole of your parts and lead a purposeful life in recovery.

The opioid crisis has had a significant impact on the world. However, the specific needs of women with opioid use disorder (OUD) are often overlooked. Women have been disproportionately underserved for OUD despite being more frequently prescribed opioids for greater pain sensitivity and slower pain relief responses. Despite the prevalence of prescription opioid misuse among women, gender roles and expectations have increased barriers to treatment. Therefore, increasing awareness of women’s experiences with OUD regardless of pregnancy status or caregiver roles can support understanding the treatment needs of women. As a result, at New Creation Recovery, we are committed to providing holistic and gender-responsive care to dismantle barriers and rebuild trust in the therapeutic alliance. Call us at (877) 868-5730 today.