Did you know that in the UK, despite women using fewer drugs than men, female deaths as a result of drug misuse have risen by 82 per cent in just a decade? This rise compares with a rate of 33 per cent for men over the same period. What’s driving this worrying trend? 

Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that drug misuse deaths among women rose from 382 in 2007 to 697 in 2016, with drug poisoning deaths among women going from 726 to 1,172. We need to look at the whole picture of why this is happening and take into account all the factors that can play a part: mental health, environmental factors and relationships.

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Vice recently reported how on how more women are dying than men as a result of substance misuse and told the personal story of Anne, who struggled with addiction and getting help. 

Anne was just 14 years old when she was raped. You’re six times more likely to be addicted to drugs if you’ve been a victim of sexual or physical abuse.

Understandably suffering with severe mental health problems as a result, Anne ran away – both from her family, and in an effort to run away from her own trauma. It didn’t take long to find coping mechanisms in substance use. Anne is quoted as saying: "When you're depressed like that you'd do anything to escape your feelings.”              

A recent blog on Talking Drugs also states: "Women who experience the most extensive violence are eight times more likely to experience addiction than those with little experience of abuse."

Virgin Unite, drug policy, Female drug deaths. ONS and Home Office

Virgin Unite, drug policy, Female drug deaths. ONS and Home Office

Cuts in services could also be seen to play a role in the increase of drug deaths. Women who have suffered physical and sexual trauma need specific and safe treatment environments, often with a need for tailored services. If an environment is not tailored and sensitive to the needs of its victim, then this is not going to give them a sense of security - which is essential for those who have suffered sexual abuse. There’s a clear link between violence and addiction – the UK government’s 2017 drug strategy acknowledges this and is set to explore the link further.

As Anne told Vice, our current system has flaws; having fled an abusive ex partner only a few months previously, Anne was then faced with him once again when attending a drug treatment centre.

Anne explains why nuanced services are needed: "You're caught up in such a world –it's crazy. You sometimes can't avoid people you don't want to see when you're going to these places.”

Anne explains in the piece how her life became an expedition of pure survival.

"Taking drugs stopped me feeling sad. It was easy to fall into addiction, and selling drugs became part of normal life. It meant I could make sure I had enough to take myself to prevent me from having to deal with my thoughts. In my mind, the idea of dealing with my feelings was scarier than the dangers that came with dealing drugs."

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Niamh Eastwoods, Executive Director for the drugs and human rights charity Release and Ian Hamilton co-wrote a blog for The Conversation which takes a look at some other curious trends.

“Drug-related deaths have risen for men and women over the last decade, but the sharpest rise has been for women. And this rise could be underestimated as coroners are less likely to investigate unnatural deaths in women, compared with men.

“The data on drug-related deaths shows that 31 per cent of female deaths were “intentional”, compared with 17 per cent of male deaths, but there has been very little analysis or exploration into why this phenomenon is occurring.”

It could also be the case that women are particularly worried about reaching out for help with mental health and addiction due to having children. Mothers who need help fear losing their children and they end up suffering in silence and not reaching out for support. Ian Hamilton and Niamh Eastwood discuss;

“Often women in treatment who have children will be subject to a higher level of scrutiny and more onerous treatment practices, such as daily pick up of their medication, such as methadone, simply because they have children.”

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It’s no wonder that the dialogue around drug law reform is gaining momentum. There’s a growing realisation that it’s not about the drugs but more about people, mental health, and societal health. Making sure that everyone is able to come forward to seek help is essential, and it’s well reported that punitive drug laws impede someone’s decision to seek help.

As the UK government’s International Comparators report clearly states, there’s no link between the harshness of a country’s drug laws and the rates of use. But it’s most likely thath arsh drug laws do prevent people from seeking help. If we want to save more lives and allow those who have suffered severe trauma to seek the care they need, then we must reform our drug laws and our attitudes. 


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