The Overlooked Addicted Women of Alberta

It’s long been recognized that alcohol and drug addiction amongst the workers of the Alberta oil fields, according to documented statistics, is a serious problem. However, most of the published documents and statistics refer to the male workers and largely ignore the specific problem of addicted women.

The Alberta oil fields, believe it or not, are bigger business than Texas. Much bigger. Various articles and statistics have been published regarding the rampant addiction of the men in the fields, but no one talks about the addicted women who work in the administration offices or in the patch for the Alberta oil fields. Addiction of women in the oil patch is, believe it or not, a big problem.

The worker camps are isolated, the job is heavily demanding and the pay is lucrative, leading workers to recklessly overindulge in alcohol and drugs to entertain themselves. We’ve seen quotes in the press in the past that “Cocaine is easier to buy than Pizza”, thanks to the many drug dealers hanging around the gates to the camp in these remote outposts.

The fact that there are specific recovery programs which have been set up especially for the oil workers of the Alberta oil fields goes some way to confirming that the problem actually exists, with some figures quoting increases in requests for assistance as high as 481% over recent years.

The irony is obviously not lost on the companies that are required by law to operate at a high level of health and safety standards in the fields, and so alcohol and drug addiction needs to be taken seriously amongst the workers, mainly men, who operate heavy, dangerous and potentially lethal machinery and processing equipment.

Which brings us to the original point of this article; why such a significant level of addicted women, and how is this different from the equivalent problems amongst the male population in the fields?

Well, it seems that certain addictive drugs are not gender equal, and although it doesn’t necessarily mean that certain drugs are more harmful for women than for men, it does appear that the effects on brain chemistry and behaviour are different and consequently the remedial actions are also varied. Although we’re referring to alcohol abuse and addiction as well as drugs, the two worst drugs by far are opiates like heroin, Fentanyl, OxyContin and methamphetamine.
Cocaine addiction is also a serious problem and another drug that affects women differently than men, for example, a study carried out in the US and presented in [O’Brien MS, Anthony JC; Anthony (2005). “Risk of becoming cocaine dependent: epidemiological estimates for the United States, 2000–2001”. Neuropsychopharmacology 30 (5): 1006–1018. doi:10.1038/sj.npp.1300681. PMID 15785780] concluded that women were 3.3 times more likely to become dependent, compared with men.

In further studies, brain scans revealed that women formerly addicted to stimulant drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, have a smaller amount of a type of brain tissue known as “grey matter”, whereas the same scans performed on men show little or no change. This was true even though the women hadn’t used the drugs for about a year before undergoing the brain scans, the study said.

The research also hints, but cannot prove, that drug addiction, in particular; stimulants, take a greater toll on addicted women’s brains compared to men who had been dependent on the same drugs. Compared to healthy men, formerly drug-dependent men showed little or no changes in their brain scans.

“Grey matter is important because it is where signals are generated in the brain that gives us the ability to think, move and behave,” explained study author Dr Jody Tanabe, a professor of radiology from the University Of Colorado School Of Medicine in Aurora, Colo.
Exactly why these changes are occurring in the brains grey matter volume in women still isn’t clear, the study authors noted. “Since the brain consists of numerous cells and the spaces between cells, we do not know if some of the cells die, become smaller, or if the spaces between the cells become smaller,” Tanabe said. Findings from the study were published online July 14 in the Journal of Radiology.

All of the previously dependent men and women in the study had been abstinent from stimulant-drug use for an average of 13.5 months at the time of the brain scans. Compared to the women in the control group and the men in the study, the previously dependent women had less grey matter volume, according to the brain scans.

“We are not sure why differences were so pronounced in the addicted women but not the men in this study,” said Tanabe. “In fact, men had overall more drug-related symptoms than women so the results were somewhat surprising. Men and women did not differ in their drug exposure (regarding the various types of drugs they were exposed to), abstinence, or years of drug use. It may be that our findings reflect behavioural and personality differences.”

So, although there is no conclusive evidence that there are differences in the nervous systems of female substance abusers this study rigorously demonstrates that grey matter volume is lower among female former users, and so does highlight the phenomenon of women being affected differently to men. However, the association between brain volume and stimulant-drug use seen in women in the study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

These findings may help to shed light on the greater severity of drug-use symptoms experienced by females, including escalation of drug use, larger quantities used and greater difficulty quitting compared with males.

Tanabe added that the new “study adds to the growing body of evidence that gender plays a significant role in studies looking at brain structure and function in addictions. Future studies need to focus on mechanisms of these differences and how they impact behaviour.”

So, to conclude, and bring this back to the specific topic of drug addicted women in the Alberta oil fields, it appears that not only are women affected differently to men in most drug addictions, but are more likely to become addicted in the first place, making women in workplaces already known as hot-beds of addiction, much more vulnerable in the first place.

Clearly, not only do recovery programs need to be tailored to particular gender based requirements, but precautionary measures in the first place need to pay special attention to addicted women workers and prevent further addiction in these hostile environments. Women have special needs, and addiction treatment programs for women only, especially for the employees of the Alberta oil fields is overlooked and very much, in demand.

If you have an employee or loved one, who works for the Alberta oil fields, and she in need of addiction treatment and help, please call 1-800-801-8354, for an assessment.