Why are more women and girls turning to prescription drug addiction?

Recent news stories drawing attention to the abuse of prescription drugs among women have caused quite a stir. Yet as a society we should not be shocked or surprised. The abuse of prescription drugs by women has been skyrocketing in recent years. What we should be asking is why. What we need to be investigating is who is to blame for this most recent wave of addiction, and why, as a society, we feel such a need to self-medicate.
Perhaps the answers to these questions depend upon demographics. Stimulant and amphetamine use among adolescent girls ages 12 – 17 is 60 – 70% higher than it is among boys (National Institute on Drug Abuse). These drugs include medications prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) such as Adderall and Ritalin. According to Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, girls and women “take stimulant medications specifically—and this is particularly true for adolescents and 18- to 25-year-olds—in order to actually improve cognitive performance, to study for an exam, to prepare for something that requires a deadline of intense work. In the case of girls, another reason why they do take stimulants is in order to lose weight, and this is because stimulant medications are anorexigenic; that is, they take your hunger away” (National Institute on Drug Abuse). In colleges across the country, amphetamines have long been abused by students who want to maintain an academic edge over their peers, and by women who long to lose that ‘freshman fifteen.’ But now the ‘good grade pill’ has become a study aid for many high school students as well, as they pursue the grades and extracurricular activities that will earn them a spot at the college or university of their dreams. It has also become the diet pill of choice among adolescent girls.
Older women are not immune to the perceived benefits of these drugs. As the latest news stories illustrate, these women, particularly mothers in their thirties and forties, turn to drugs like Adderall for similar reasons. The pressure of doing it all and doing it well overwhelms them, so they begin taking the drugs merely to get through their to-do lists and to lose a few extra pounds. However, these women can quickly become addicted to the ‘supermom pill,’ which can then lead them to even stronger drugs like methamphetamines.
The abuse of pain medications, primarily opioids, has also increased significantly among girls and women. Adolescent girls are much more likely than boys to abuse prescription pain pills. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “the rate of use is actually significantly higher among adolescent girls 12 to 17 than males for all of the psychotherapeutics, and that includes the psychotherapeutics that are abused in general, but also by teenagers, pain medications that contain opiates, and these are drugs like Vicodin or OxyContin” (NIDA).
The abuse of opiates and other medications prescribed for insomnia and anxiety can be seen among older women as well. Between 2005 – 2009, emergency room visits for attempted overdoses by women age 50 and older taking prescriptions for anxiety or insomnia rose 56%, and ER visits for women taking prescription pain relievers rose 30% during that same time period. Even more concerning is the 67% rise for women taking hydrocodone, and a startling 210% increase for women taking oxycodone (SAMHSA News Release).
The causes of drug addiction vary from individual to individual. However, for girls and women, one key factor seems to be the need to live up to unrealistic societal standards. Girls are supposed to be thin, beautiful, and smart in order to be seen as successful and popular. The pressure to be perfect surrounds them in the countless images they are exposed to on a daily basis. And today these images, particularly those in print media, are not even real. Every image is airbrushed, retouched, and edited until it barely resembles the actual person being photographed. 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 a pill can help them achieve these goals, it can be a temptation too strong to resist.
While unrealistic societal standards are certainly a contributing factor to addiction, physicians and pharmaceutical companies also bear some responsibility. According to Dr. Volkow, “We have seen a really dramatic—there’s no other way that I can call it but dramatic—increase in the number of prescriptions for the main two types of psychotherapeutics abuse, which are pain medications and stimulants. Since 1992 to 2009, which is close to 20 years, there’s been a ninefold—ninefold increase of the number of prescriptions for stimulant medications. They have gone from 4 million to 36 million. And for pain and analgesics, the numbers have grown fourfold. They have gone from 40 million to 180 million prescriptions in a given year. So what that means is that we are making these medications widely, widely available” (NIDA). This widespread availability is particularly concerning when the drugs being prescribed include amphetamines and powerful pain medications.
Prescription drug addiction destroys individuals, families, and communities. While some people believe that prescribed pills are safer than street drugs, they are sadly mistaken. Any drug that is used off label or is overused is potentially lethal. If we could only begin to take the pressure off of ourselves by collectively rising up against unrealistic societal demands, and by insisting that doctors and pharmaceutical companies be more concerned about their patients than their bottom line, it would be a decent start.

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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