There was no lack of concern and curiosity at a recent Jewish Community Services event at The Suburban Club in Pikesville. On hand for “Women & Addiction: Our Unique Risks,” were 50 women ready to learn about the growing dangers of women, drug use, overdoses and deaths.
Joan G. Klein of Pikesville, who sponsored the event through her Joan G. Klein Fund for Substance Use Disorders (an endowment fund of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore), said the subject of substance use and addiction is also a personal one.
“One of my reasons is I have a grandson that had a problem and he has been clean for seven years,” Klein said. “And there was a need that Joan Grayson Cohen [executive director of JCS] and Jackie Post Ashkin [director of community connections at JCS] explained. I’m a bit of a feminist, I guess, and when it was suggested that women have a problem, I think it’s important to know how women start, probably with a prescription drug, and then can’t stop.”
Vickie Walters, executive director of REACH Health Services, spoke before her presentation about how the addiction crisis is especially impacting women.
“Women are one of the fastest growing populations that are becoming addicted. Men have always been ahead of the pack in this, but women are catching up, so I think it’s really important that we talk about it and that we recognize that there are some special issues that women may face — particularly around the stigma related to substance-use disorders,” Walters said.
Women are often reluctant to seek treatment, Walters said, for fear of losing their children or bringing unwanted attention to the family.
“So getting it out in the open and talking about it, that it’s a real issue, and that prescription medications are also the reason that this is rising,” she said. “Our women in the community need to be aware and be open to talking to our friends and our family members, not being judgmental, offering support and encouragement and steering people to treatment if we can.”
Walters said that women seem to have better success in gender-specific treatment programs “where they can really discuss their issues.”
“This, unfortunately, is not going away, the opioid overdoses,” she added. “Maryland is second in the country to West Virginia for the last two years in 2016 and 2017. That’s not someplace that we want to be.”
As director of Community Connections at JCS, Ashkin said in her introduction of Walters’ presentation, that “the face of addiction has changed.”
“There was once upon a time, perhaps, where we thought we were safe from opioids and from heroin. We didn’t think of it as something that would touch us out here in the suburbs. And we didn’t feel like we were vulnerable. But I’m sure that each of us now knows someone, and probably more than one person among our family or friends, whose lives have been ever changed by the disease of addiction. There’s been too many tragedies in our community,” Ashkin said. “As women, not only are we not immune to the disease of addiction and this opioid crisis, but as a matter of fact, over the past two decades, prescription opioid overdose deaths among women increased 471%, which is staggering. And it’s more than double the rate of increase among men. So, this is one of those areas where we didn’t want to say #MeToo, and yet, we’re catching up, and we’re becoming equally as affected as men. So if we want to protect ourselves and the girls and the women that we love, our daughters, our granddaughters, our sisters, our mothers and our friends, we can’t afford the luxury of denial.”
According to the National Institutes of Health August 2018 Substance Use in Women Report (based on 2016 data), 19.5 million females, or 15.4%, 18 or older have used illicit substances in the past year, while 8.4 million females, or 6.6%, have misused prescription drugs in the past year. In addition, the study found that the number of women with opioid use disorder at labor and delivery had quadrupled from 1999-2014.
“The opioid overdose crisis is happening in this country. It’s happening in the state. And it’s a huge issue,” Walters said. “Drug deaths in America are rising faster than ever. In one year, drug overdoses kill more Americans than the entire Vietnam War did, and opioids now kill more people than breast cancer.”
The cycle of opioid abuse often begins with the need for a pain killer after an operation or injury and spirals to seeking street drugs, such as heroin, as the addiction worsens. Walters underscored the need for people to understand how drug use and addiction actually physically changes the brain, and therefore should be looked at as a brain disease, not a “moral failure.”
“People don’t do this because they’re weak and they can’t say no,” Walters said. “They do this because once they start, for many people not everyone, something is triggered within their brain and they become psychologically and then physiologically addicted and they have to use the medication in order to feel what we call ‘normal.’”
According to the Maryland Department of Health 2017 “Unintentional Drug- and Alcohol-Related Intoxication Deaths in Maryland Annual Report,” 2,282 people died in Maryland of drug- and alcohol-related intoxication. 2017 was the seventh year in a row of increases, with the number tripling since 2010. The 2017 number reflects a 9% increase since 2016, but 2015 to 2016 saw a 66% spike in deaths, many due to the use of fentanyl — a drug that is cheap to manufacture and many times stronger than heroin.
“It is also very deadly. It’s much more deadly than heroin, the street heroin that people have been using for years. That’s part of the reason that we’re having this huge increase in opioid-overdose deaths,” Walters said. “People oftentimes aren’t aware that they’re getting this. Or, we’re seeing in our treatment program and other treatment programs across Baltimore City and across Maryland, that some people are aware and are looking for that medication because they want to get that extra high. Or they think that they’re immune, that, ‘I can handle this. I’ve been using heroin for a long time, so this isn’t going to hurt me.’ So it’s a really big issue.”
Beyond these alarming statistics, lie the fact that studies show women may be more vulnerable to addiction. With higher rates of mental disorders, including anxiety and depression, greater susceptibility to gateway drugs, including marijuana, and more incidents of trauma, discrimination and stress, drug use can more easily become a coping method.
According to Walters, women also turn to drug use for different reasons than men that include for weight control, fighting exhaustion, coping with pain and self-medicating mental health problems. And once women enter into treatment, even more barriers may hinder successful recovery, Walters added, including childcare responsibilities, transportation, financial status and social stigma.
“I can’t go anywhere without talking about stigma because it’s critical,” Walters said. “It’s so important that we as women in the community, we understand that the only way that we can help our friends and our family and our coworkers is that if we are understanding and willing to talk to them about their addiction and that we don’t try to shame them or make them feel bad,” Walters said. “It’s really important that we stay away from stereotypes and we don’t prejudge people, we’re open, we listen and we offer help where we can. Because, as Jackie said, ‘everybody knows somebody who’s affected by this in some way or another.’”
Jewish Community Services offers a podcast series on addiction called “Hooked: Personal Stories of Addiction.” JCS recently announced new episodes called “Women at Risk: Confronting the Addiction Epidemic.” The podcasts are available on Spotify and iTunes. For more information go to ifiknew.org/hooked. JT
The event was also sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Giving Foundation.