New Research Makes Case for Female-Focused Opioid Treatment Programs

Opioid users with traumatic childhood experiences could be best served with treatment options specifically tailored to their gender, new research asserts. The findings could help inform how behavioral health providers offer services going forward.  

The study — recently published by the scientific journal Addictive Behaviors — makes the case that women could especially benefit from new gender-tailored treatment plans.

“Health care providers could think about implementing the assessment for childhood adversity with their patients, so that it becomes part of the universal screening that happens such as when people see their physician,” Elizabeth Evans, lead researcher and assistant public health and health sciences professor at the University of Massachusetts, told Behavioral Health Business.

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The study analyzed data from a statistically even number of women and men with substance abuse disorder (388 women to 390 men) culled from a database by the National Institutes of Health. Researchers examined gender differences between adults with opioid use disorder (OUD), as well as trauma suffered in childhood, described as adverse childhood experiences (ACE).

Researchers found that men with OUD were more likely to externalize their feelings in the form angry and potentially aggressive behavior, while women with OUD had a tendency to internalize their feelings, leading to anxiety disorders.

Additionally, the study suggests women with ACE were more likely to develop opioid pill addictions, compared to men, who more often turn to heroin following childhood trauma.

Behavioral health providers of all kinds can play a critical role in improving treatment by creating gender-tailored methods that take into account both a woman’s past traumatic experiences and their use of opioids to cope, Evans said.

She also believes other professionals in the health care system — like medical doctors — can be beneficial in screening for red flags regarding possible ACE and OUD.

“It’s an opportunity to ask if [patients have] been exposed to childhood adversity,” Evans said. “If they do screen positive, maybe they can be informed of how that history can elevate their risk for many health conditions, including opioid use disorders.”

Currently, much of the OUD treatment industry is male-oriented, she believes — a possible detriment to women with OUD who need help addressing particular types of trauma (such as sexual assault).

Efforts by women with OUD to address their disorders may also be hindered by the fact that some are mothers, who, as the primary caregivers for their children, are potentially likelier to have their parental rights taken away.

“Women can face barriers to entry to accessing that care that’s unique to them,” Evans told BHB. “That doesn’t happen as commonly for men.”

Evans believes providers can improve outcomes for women with ACE and OUD by offering women-only treatment, as well as childcare, at their facilities.

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