Pregnant addicts are the most stigmatized group in U.S. society. Even other drug addicts regard pregnant addicts with scorn. But the nature of addiction is the loss of control – pregnant addicts usually do want to stop using drugs, but have lost the power to do so without help. And even if they do seek help, pregnant women face special barriers to proper care. The stigmatization alone is enough to keep many women from getting help. They face overwhelming shame and blame from society and from their own families. Pregnant women don’t tell their obstetricians about their addiction, for fear they will be treated harshly by the professionals on whom they must depend to deliver medical care. I’ve already blogged about the atrocious misinformation some obstetricians accept as true about opioids addiction and treatment during pregnancy. Female addicts, scared and ashamed to ask for help, try to hide their addiction as well as they can, and hope for the best.
If a pregnant addict does seek help, many treatment programs won’t accept her into treatment, because she is too high risk. Addiction treatment programs sometimes don’t want the liability of a pregnant addict.
At one of the opioid treatment programs where I used to work, a woman came for admission in her fifth month of pregnancy. I tried to be gentle as I asked her why she’d waiting so long to get help. She laughed without humor and told me she’d been turned away from three other treatment facilities. The first was an inpatient residential treatment program that turned her away because she was addicted to opioids. They told her if they took her into their treatment program, she would have to undergo withdrawal, because they did not “believe” in methadone or buprenorphine (Subutex). And if she went into withdrawal, she could miscarry.
They directed her to an inpatient detoxification program that also declined to admit her because they didn’t want her to miscarry while in their facility. They (correctly) referred her to an opioid treatment program. The first opioid treatment program offered only methadone, and since she preferred buprenorphine, they referred her to the clinic where I worked. This patient had (correctly) heard new studies showed less severe withdrawal in babies born to moms on buprenorphine (Subutex) compared to moms on methadone. That clinic then referred her to our clinic, since we do use buprenorphine. All of this took a few weeks, delaying her entry to treatment. The treatment programs made the right decisions, but addiction treatment is so patchwork that it took time for her to ping-pong from place to place until she found the treatment she needed.
Pregnant women fear they will lose custody of their children if they admit to being addicted and ask for help. Sadly, in some counties in my state, their fear is well-grounded. Some women are told they will lose their children because they have enrolled in medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, even though it’s the treatment of choice for opioid-addicted pregnant women. In most cases, treatment center staff can act as advocates, and talk to social service workers who may not be well-informed about addiction treatment. Punishing a mom for getting help doesn’t help anyone. Word spreads in addict social networks, making other women less likely to get help for addiction.
Often, the pregnant addict’s husband or partner is also addicted. He may try to keep her away from drug addiction treatment, fearing loss of control over her, or he may feel like he’ll be asked to stop using drugs too. Even if she’s able to go to treatment, having a drug-using partner makes it more difficult to stop using herself.
Women, pregnant or not, tend to have childcare issues. If they want to get help, who will watch the children while they attend treatment?
Despite the difficulties faced by pregnant addicts, most want desperately to deliver a healthy baby. We know from several studies that harsh confrontation predicts addiction treatment failure in pregnant women. That is, if treatment facility personnel, obstetricians, nurses or any other member of the treatment team tries to blame and scare a pregnant addict into stopping drug use, it backfires. Pregnant women tend leave treatment when they are treated harshly, and have worse outcomes than women who stay in treatment.
I’ve written blogs about the negative attitudes some medical professionals have toward pregnant opioid addicts who come for treatment with buprenorphine (Subutex) or methadone. Thankfully, that’s not a universal attitude. Recently an obstetrician referred her patient to us, calling ahead to speed things along. I called her back after I saw the patient, and we had a cordial conversation which I appreciate all the more in view of negativity I’ve experienced in the past.
I thought again about the topic of opioid-addicted pregnant addicts because of an article in my most recent issue of Journal of Addiction Medicine. This article described the outcome of a study of opioid-addicted pregnant patients in rural Vermont. Since methadone and buprenorphine (Subutex) are the treatments of choice for these patients, the study looked to see if better access to these treatments improved outcomes. The results showed, not surprisingly, improved access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction in pregnant addicts improved the health outcomes for both mothers and babies. Earlier research showed the same result, but this was a rural group, underrepresented in past studies.
Meyer, M, et. al, “Development of a Substance Abuse Program for Opioid-Dependent Nonurban Pregnant Women Improves Outcome,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 6 (2) pp.124-130.