Increase in female overdose deaths prompts officials to develop specific programs

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AURORA | While recent national data shows that middle-aged women are overdosing on prescription drugs at high rates, officials at drug addiction centers in Aurora say they have female-specific programs to help combat the epidemic.

According to a Centers for Disease Control report released earlier this month, prescription painkiller overdose deaths among females increased about fivefold from 1999 to 2010. About half of the women who died from prescription drug overdose deaths in 2010 were between the ages of 45 and 64. The prescription painkillers were mostly opioids, a chemical found in heroin and painkillers such as Oxycodone and Vicodin.

The University of Colorado Hospital’s Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation (CeDAR) and Arapahoe House in Aurora both offer rehabilitation programs specifically tailored to women.

Steve Millette, executive director at CeDAR, said the facility launched gender-specific rehabilitation programs three years ago because women have different addiction issues than men. About 65 percent of women drug-abusers have had a history of trauma that has caused them to continue abusing drugs, he said.

Still, CeDAR treats more men than women because of the social stigma surrounding addiction, Millette said.

“There are a number of barriers that women face to seeking treatment that men don’t share,” he said. “The issue of stigma and identifying oneself as having an addiction problem is still a steeper slope for women to navigate than it is for men.”

While there are obstacles for women seeking treatment, women are more likely than men to receive prescription medication for chronic pain and illnesses like depression and anxiety which makes them more prone to drug abuse, Millette said.

“It’s not surprising to see that women are catching up to men in terms of the amount of overdoses,” he said. More men still die from overdoses of painkillers and other drugs. CDC data shows that about 23,000 men died from overdose deaths in 2010, compared with about 15,300 for women.

CeDAR offers a gender-specific residential inpatient program where women live in a house with other women for between 31 and 90 days. CeDAR officials were conscious of how the house was laid out, he said.

“There are areas for reflective time, and it’s safe and well-lit,” he said. “For women who have a history of trauma and abuse, it’s important to have an environment that speaks to safety and trustworthiness.”

CeDAR launched an outpatient program in June that will offer female-only group therapy sessions with female counselors within the next year. There will also be specific group therapy sessions focused on women with histories of trauma, he said.

Arapahoe House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center with a detox facility in Aurora, typically serves men who are picked up by law enforcement officials and sent to detox. But the center also offers specialized, residential programs for women, including a program for women and their dependent children and a program for pregnant women.

“We do recognize that women do have different treatment needs than men,” said Kate Olsen, spokeswoman for Arapahoe House. “Everyone has a different story, so we always individualize our treatment plans.”

Women tend to stay longer in treatment than men, sometimes up to six months, Olsen said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.