Prescription overdoses a growing epidemic among women

The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are staggering. Between 1999 and 2010 there was a 400 percent increase in prescription medication overdoses among women in the US. In that ten year period, 48,000 women died from prescription painkiller overdoses, including overdoses caused by opioid or narcotic pain relievers such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone. And for every woman who died, 30 went to the emergency room for prescription medication misuse or abuse. In 2010 more than 6,600 women died in the US from prescription painkiller overdoses; that’s approximately 18 women every day (CDC Vital Signs).

Part of the problem is the “legitimacy” of prescription medication. Unlike street drugs such as cocaine and heroin, opioids are prescribed by doctors, and therefore carry less stigma. People also believe they are inherently safe since they are being dispensed by a physician. However, women need to use particular care when taking opioids or narcotics, as there is evidence that they may become dependent upon this type of medication more quickly than men. Women also tend to be prescribed higher doses of medication for longer periods of time. Pregnant women who take prescription painkillers also put their infants at risk; incidences of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) rose 300 percent between 2000 – 2009 (CDC Vital Signs).

There are other issues to consider as well. Women ages 25-54 are most likely to visit the emergency room due to prescription painkiller misuse or abuse. And women ages 45-54 have the highest risk of dying from a prescription drug overdose (CDC Vital Signs). Women in these age groups face tremendous societal pressures. The pressure to be physically perfect surrounds younger women in the countless images they are exposed to on a daily basis. Older women are also subjected to unrealistic societal standards. They suffer from superwoman syndrome–the pressure to be successful in their careers while maintaining perfect relationships, perfect homes, perfect children, and perfect bodies. If women feel that a pill can help them achieve these goals, or can help them escape from the constant pressure, it can be a temptation too strong to resist. Unfortunately, we continue to live in a patriarchal society that values women for their youth, beauty, and fertility. As women age, they begin to realize that they are no longer valued, which can lead to depression and the misuse of prescription medication.

In order to effectively combat prescription medication abuse among women, we must address the underlying societal issues that are causing women to turn to these drugs in greater numbers. We must also support efforts to combat prescription drug abuse at the state and federal level by asking our representatives to pass legislation to crack down on pill mills, and by pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to expand efforts to properly educate providers regarding the dispensing of addictive medications. This is not just an individual problem. It is a societal problem that negatively impacts all of us.  If we can take the pressure off of ourselves by collectively rising up against unrealistic societal demands, and also insist that doctors and pharmaceutical companies be more concerned about their patients than their bottom line, perhaps we will begin to see positive change.

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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