Opiate Addiction Among Women

In 2011, the number of people enrolling in treatment programs for an addiction to an opiate other than heroin was 348 percent higher than the rate seen in 2001, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Many people enrolled due to heroin, of course, but stats like this suggest that there’s a growing fascination in this country with other opiates like Vicodin, OxyContin and fentanyl.

Of all of those people who are addicted to opiates, whether heroin or painkillers, many are women.

While the reasons they began using drugs are individualized, and the path to healing they might need to follow is similarly unique, there are some generalizations that can be made about women who choose these drugs.

Why Opiates?

An opiate drug is profoundly sedating. Once the active substance in these drugs hits the cells of the brain, intense chemical changes take hold and they envelop a user in a sensation of peace, calm and pleasure. In no time at all, people feel absolutely transformed, and they may have an experience that’s hard for them to replicate without another hit of the same type of drug. Unfortunately, these drugs can also leave a huge amount of damage behind, meaning that users must take in higher doses of drugs in order to feel the same effects. It’s this type of chemical change that can lead people to an addiction, as they feel as though they simply cannot function properly unless drugs are available.
While both men and women might fall prey to addictions, studies cited by Harvard suggest that women might be more prone to addictions to opioid prescription painkillers simply because they head to the doctor more often than men do, and they tend to deal with chronic pain conditions at a rate that’s higher than the rate seen in men. While men might lean on heroin to get high, women might just go to the doctor and walk away with a prescription for the drug they’d like to abuse.

Trigger Issues

Women who do develop an addiction to an opiate often struggle with mental health concerns, according to a study in the journal Substance Use and Misuse. When compared to men addicted to opiates, women had higher rates of depression and anxiety. It’s possible that these mental health issues drove these women to begin tinkering with drugs in the first place. Women with depression might enjoy the kick of pleasure an opiate can bring, while anxious women might use opiates to help them relax or fall asleep. It’s a form of self-medication, and while it’s understandable, it could lead directly to addiction.

Similarly, some women who develop addictions to opiates have a prior history of eating disorders. In a study of the issue, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment,

researchers found that about 20 percent of women enrolled in one treatment program for an opiate addiction had a prior problem with bulimia, and that urge came roaring back when the women tried to detox from drugs.

Opiates can seem like helpful tools for women with bulimia, as they can produce a feeling of sedation and calm, which might allow women to forget their urges for a moment or two. But again, opiate abuse like this tends to lead to addiction, and this can make a woman’s suffering so much worse.

Women might also choose to abuse opiates in the aftermath of a traumatic incident, such as:

  • Sexual assault
  • Physical altercation
  • Kidnapping
  • Spousal abuse

These incidents often leave women with physical injuries that are treated with painkillers, and women might also have emotional scars that pills seem to soothe. Opiate painkillers seem like a perfect solution to both problems, and they can lead right to addiction.

Special Recovery Considerations

Since women might develop an addiction to opiates due to mental health concerns, and those issues might grow stronger in the early days of recovery, they might need to enroll in treatment programs that provide a Dual Diagnosis emphasis, so they can get help for both problems at the same time. But there are other issues women might need to pay particular attention to.


For example, a study of opiate users in New York City found that rehab facilities often employed male counselors, and that male clients outnumbered female clients. This is not a new study, but some of these facts may hold true in treatment facilities today, and they do matter. Women who have endured trauma perpetrated by men may not be comfortable with the idea of participating in therapy with men, and these women may not need the same types of therapy men do. They might need to discuss trauma, for example, or include their children in their treatment. Men might not have these same needs. Studies like this suggest that women might need programs geared just for them, or they might do better in programs that are run by and include only women.

Similarly, women enrolled in treatment may enjoy therapies that are:

  • Collaborative
  • Supportive
  • Inclusive
  • Nurturing

They might do well in one-on-one therapy sessions that have a slightly combative, clinical tone, but they might also enjoy group sessions in which they can connect with other women and learn in a group setting. Some women find these settings just a little less threatening, and they may be less likely to drop out of care if they can get help in this sort of format.

Finding Help

Women who have developed opiate addictions can and do get better with the right kind of help. If you’re trying to reach out to someone you love who has an addiction, or you’d like to find out more about what you’ll need to do to leave opiates out of your own future, we’d like to help.

Foundations Recovery Network programs specialize in providing Dual Diagnosis care. We can assist with almost any mental health issue that could arise in the context of an addiction, and our therapies are designed to boost insight and skills, so people can keep both problems under control in the future. Many of our facilities offer special treatment tracks just for women, and some offer care only for women. Please call, and our admissions coordinators can tell you more.

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