Women More Likely to Abuse Anti-Anxiety Drugs During COVID-19

Published on May 18, 2020
Mountainside Canaan Aerial Shot

Canaan, CT – Women have always faced barriers to accessing addiction treatment services, and the gender divide now appears to be widening as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on local communities. Mountainside treatment center in Canaan, CT reports that fewer woman have been seeking inpatient treatment since late March, when the outbreak in the Northeast began to take its toll.  At the same time, widespread coronavirus-related apprehensions are driving more people, particularly women, to cope with stress by turning to anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines – benzos, for short.

Recent Mountainside data indicates a rise in the use of benzos across its inpatient programs, regardless of gender. The most drastic increases, however, were observed among women in its Detox program, where female clients naming these anti-anxiety drugs as their primary substance of choice quadrupled between the first quarter of the year and April, after a full month of lockdown. This surge mirrors a national finding that detected a 34 percent spike in the use of anti-anxiety medications among Americans. Growing uncertainty about the future has shined a spotlight on the increasing need for treatment as well as concerns about whether women will be receptive to help during this time of social distancing.

“It’s been fairly consistent over the past 6 years that about 35 percent of admissions to our Detox program have been women, but in April, we saw that number drop to 22 percent,” says Dr. Randall Dwenger, Chief Medical Officer at Mountainside. Additionally, fewer women are entering residential rehab treatment after completing detox.  “Typically, two-thirds of our clients, independent of gender, transfer to our Residential program.  This past month, only 44 percent of our female admissions transitioned to Residential treatment, contrasted with 75 percent of our male admissions.”

Childcare responsibilities, discrepancies in insurance coverage, financial worries, and greater feelings of shame about addiction have traditionally led women (more than men) to avoid or delay seeking treatment for substance use disorders. While multiple factors can influence women’s decisions about seeking treatment, finding care for their children is often the number one concern. “Women who need inpatient treatment generally can rely on relatives – or even close friends and neighbors – to help care for their kids when they need to get help for addiction. But with the need for social distancing and self-quarantine, having your parents or your sister stay with your kids isn’t really an option,” says Alexandra Helfer, Mountainside’s Chief Clinical Officer.

“Unfortunately, delaying necessary treatment for addiction can have profound negative effects on women’s lives, including the risk of worsening co-occurring psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and suicide,” says Dwenger. For many addicted to benzodiazepines, overcoming both their substance use disorder and the anxiety that drove them to use these medications in the first place can be even more challenging without professional intervention.

There may still be a silver lining in the cloud of this pandemic. John Jones, Vice President of Business Affairs at Mountainside, notes an increase in women entering outpatient treatment. “About 17 percent of women entering our program started in Outpatient in the first quarter of 2020.  That number jumped to almost 42 percent in April, when we switched our Outpatient Services to a telehealth format. That’s a 147 percent increase,” Jones points out.

Mountainside, as well as many other treatment facilities, now offers Intensive Outpatient Programming, group therapy and family counseling, Individual Therapy, Psychiatric Services, Recovery Coaching, and many other wellness and support services online via telehealth. Those who suspect they may have a problem should contact a local treatment center to explore virtual and in-person offerings.