Connecticut sees sharp increase in overdose deaths of young women

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The number of women, especially young women, who died of overdoses was substantially higher last year than in the year before, leading at least one organization in the region to seek a new way to target the problem.

A deeper look at data the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released last month reveals sharp increases in the number of young women who died of overdoses in 2016 versus the year before. 

Notably, there was a 385.7 percent increase — from seven to 34 — in the number of women aged 25 to 34 who died of fentanyl-related overdoses. That’s compared to a 134.8 percent increase among men the same age.

Overall, girls and women aged 17 to 34 saw a 128.6 percent increase in fatal overdoses from 2015 to 2016. Their male counterparts saw a 57.7 percent increase.

Men, with 684 fatalities, still accounted for almost 75 percent of the state’s 2016 overdose deaths. And it’s impossible to say from one year’s worth of data whether the big jump in the number of young women dying from drugs will be sustained.

But signs of women’s increasing use and abuse of opioids abound.

Over the last few years, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports have shown that women’s heroin use and prescription painkiller overdose deaths have grown faster than men’s.

In Connecticut-specific data provided to The Day, FAIR Health — an independent nonprofit that keeps a database of billions of privately billed health care claims — found that while women made up 25 percent of all heroin overdoses from 2011 to 2016, they accounted for 58 percent of all opioid overdoses. Opioids are a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers such as codeine, oxycodone and methadone, as well as illegal substances such as heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

A study released last year by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found the rate of women dying of drug overdoses increased 17-fold from 1978 to 2014. It increased 14-fold among all drug users.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, women, who have a higher rate of chronic pain than men, are more likely to be prescribed opioid pain relievers. They also get the pain pills at higher doses, use them for longer periods and become dependent on them more quickly.

In its report, FAIR Health pointed to the fact that about 75 percent of new users of heroin report having first abused prescription opioids as a possible explanation of women's increasing rates of use.  The overdoses, FAIR Health hypothesized, might be a result of women's lower average weight.

The growing prevalence of drug addiction among women — along with the fact that drug overdose is the leading cause of death for people who are homeless — recently led Norwich-based nonprofit Bethsaida Community Inc. to apply for federal funding to help prevent opioid misuse among women.

Claire Silva, executive director of the group that has provided outreach, housing and support services to hundreds of homeless women, said Bethsaida analyzed the 103 women housed by its Kate Blair House program from 2010 to 2016. Of them, 51 had an alcohol addiction and 32 were addicted to drugs.

“Supporting women in their recovery from drugs/alcohol, and trauma from domestic violence and sexual assault, is fundamental to all Bethsaida housing programs,” Silva wrote in an email.

She said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant, if Bethsaida were to get it, would help create a network spanning southeastern Connecticut, with police, hospital and nonprofit personnel signing on.

The network, dubbed Women Empowered by Community Aligned Recovery Efforts, or WE CARE for short, would focus on quickly matching women to emergency or long-term care and supporting them in their recovery.

“Saving someone with Narcan is just the beginning,” Silva said, referring to an opioid overdose-reversal drug. “Emergency responders and treatment/outpatient professionals don't want to see repeat overdoses — they want to see solutions. They want to know the patient with a history of overdoses now has community supports in place.”

The Connecticut Health Investigative Team and Wheeler Clinic, a Plainville-based organization that provides behavioral health, addiction and primary care services across Connecticut, also are teaming up to tackle the issue of women and addiction. During a free forum in New Britain on April 6, panelists will discuss how and why women end up addicted and the methods that tend to work best for their recovery.

Other trends in the data

Although young women saw the biggest spike in overdose deaths, overall, men saw a slightly larger increase in deaths than women — 27 percent versus 22.

That’s in part because men older than 35 outpaced women in heroin-related deaths and men aged 55 to 64 saw a 363.64 percent increase in fentanyl-related deaths. There also was a 275 percent increase in 17- to 24-year-old males who died because of cocaine, which is not an opioid, in 2016 over 2015.

November, with 175, had the most overdose deaths in 2015 and 2016, followed by October and July, with 154 and 152, respectively.

The data also show the five municipalities with the highest rates of overdose deaths in 2016 — Derby, Hartford, New London, Sharon and Norwich — are municipalities with hospitals. Many of the residents dying in those places, the data suggest, aren’t from there. Of the two people who died in Sharon, for example, neither overdosed in Sharon or was from there.

In eastern Connecticut, Griswold, Norwich, Columbia, Lebanon, Franklin, Plainfield, Windham and Montville all were more likely to have a resident die of an overdose than New London.

Yet New London, with 9.2 overdoses per 10,000 population, had by far the highest rate of overdose deaths in the state.

2016 Connecticut overdose deaths 2015-2016

2016 Connecticut overdose deaths by drug, gender and age

Connecticut towns with the highest rate of overdose deaths in 2016

Data: Office of the Chief Medical Examiner


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