Strong evidence for considering sex/gender differences in opioid crisis


Opioid use continues to be widespread even with dramatic increases in the number of overdoses and deaths nationwide.

Allison Kernan is a former addict.

She said, “I know I was using just to cope with my mental health. I was having a lot of issues with my mental health and it wasn’t going diagnosed or really treated.”

When it comes to opioid use, there are clear differences between women and men, explained Dr. Carolyn Mazure, Director of Women’s Health Research at Yale

“Women are more likely to have chronic disorders and acute and chronic pain,” she said. “And when they seek help, in addition to that, they are more likely to be given opioids than are men.” 

Dr. Mazure has spent the last 20 years focused on data, pointing to sex and gender differences between women and men and most recently, on the impact of opioids.

Dr. Mazure said, “We don’t know all the biology related to it. Women and men can experience withdrawal differently. They can experience the effect of the drug differently.”

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She said studies also show that “Although men tend to have more opioid-related deaths, women have a higher rate of increase on those deaths.”

The 9th floor on the east pavilion of Yale New Haven Hospital is where Dr. Jaimie Meyer and her team are caring for substance abuse patients. 

Women, she said are more likely to be in unhealthy relationships and vulnerable.    

Dr. Meyer added, “A lot of women I take care of, let’s say they start heroin. They are often injected by their partners, they are often second on the needle.”     

Dr. Meyer said women also face social barriers to accessing care.  

She explained, “It can be things like they can’t get childcare, to go to a methadone clinic every day.”

Dr. Mazure stressed, “We really have to understand that women and men are biologically different and we also have differences in our personal experience that affect our health.” 

This is something that Allison Kernan knows all too well. 

“I think my ability to choose was out the window,” said Allison. “Because I was so much under the influence of the environment I was in, the people that were giving it to me, the people I was associated with and the person that offered it to me. I had a very unhealthy relationship with [it].”  

Allison spent a short time in prison for felony charges related to drugs and alcohol.  

She now spends a lot of time out in the community, sharing her personal journey.   

She is also is back in school, studying to become a recovery coach.

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