Despite drug use in general falling, new government statistics show that female drug-related deaths have risen dramatically in the last decade. And experts argue that the true scale of the problem may be even greater than we know.
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The number of women dying from drug abuse has risen significantly in England and Wales, with healthcare authorities struggling to respond to this growing trend.
New figures released by Britain's Office for National Statistics lay bare the alarming trend. Since 2007, deaths related to drug misuse have risen from 382 to 697—an increase of 82 percent. This is despite the fact that fewer women are using drugs, and female drug deaths are consistently under-reported, signifying that the actual death toll may be higher. (While male deaths have also increased in this period, the under-reporting of female deaths in particular makes their rise more alarming.)
In addition to misusing illegal drugs, more women than ever before are being poisoned. Drug poisoning deaths—a broad category that applies to both illegal and legal drugs in which it's often impossible to determine which drug in particular proved fatal—also rose amongst women in the last decade, from 726 to 1,172.
Drugs experts Ian Hamilton and Katherine Sacks-Jones were the first to notice the trend from the recent government data, publishing a blog post criticizing the UK government for not recognizing the complex factors that lead women to abuse recreational drugs.
"People often think about drug use in terms of men being the ones having the problems," explains Hamilton in a phone interview. "And most people aren't aware of the specific issues that women face. The sharp increase in female deaths over the last decade really brings that into focus. It's really important to understand why it's happened and take steps to reduce it."
He explains that the majority of women who die from drug abuse are opiate users (like heroin), and die before they reach the age of 49 years old. Often, these women don't access help because rehab centers and treatment facilities are traditionally male spaces. Many of these women will have suffered intimate partner abuse at the hands of fellow drug abusers—and some of the men who abused them may well be at these treatment facilities. So the women suffer in silence, never accessing potentially life-saving treatment.
Club drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine are also contributing to female deaths, as drugs are increasing in purity and strength. We know that European MDMA is now the most potent it has ever been, with a number of recent high-profile deaths of young women in club and festival settings.
The solution? We need to innovate new ways to help treat female drug users before it's too late.
"Policy makers and treatment providers are in denial," Hamilton says. "They're not responding to the specific rise in deaths of females. So firstly they need to acknowledge that this rise has taken place and it's a significant rise, then they need to make treatment and services more responsive to females." This might include integrating trauma-focused services into drug rehabilitation centers, to acknowledge the fact that many female drug users have survived trauma. "Their drug use is a symptom of that trauma, rather than the cause," Hamilton explains. Integrating mental health and drug treatment services in the UK would also be beneficial.
But ultimately, we need to stop burying our head in the sand. "There's systemic things that can be done," Hamilton says. "But none of that can happen until policy makers address this is a problem."