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alcohol abuse is on the rise among women — here’s why it matters

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A dabble, a tipple, a little dram to take the edge off. For decades, alcohol consumption among women has been viewed with a wink and a nod. Viewed as an amusing little secret that’s actually not fooling anyone. It’s the old image of the harried mum taking nips and sips — and more — of her favourite libation throughout her busy day, just to get through. It’s the image of the ordinary housewife who’s always already half in the bag by late morning, though she does her best (unsuccessfully, usually) to hide it.

Traditionally, this has been fodder for comic scenes and comic characters in television and film. But it’s far from a laughing matter. The reality is that alcohol consumption among women is on the rise, and so too are the harms, from substance abuse disorders (SUD) and dangerous binge drinking, to fatal accidents and illnesses related to alcohol consumption.

A Long History

Alcohol consumption among women, of course, is nothing new. But, historically, there has been something of a social stigma attached to women and drinking. Heavy drinking, especially to the point of drunkenness, and the consumption of hard liquors, were thought to be the province of men.

Women’s alcohol consumption, on the other hand, was a bit more regulated, a bit more refined. Women were expected to always drink in moderation, never to the point of intoxication, which was considered “unladylike,” and typically only in social situations where to partake in small quantities was considered the polite thing to do.

Such situations, as well as the limited use of alcohol such as tonics for medicinal purposes, were, historically, the only socially acceptable relationship women could have with alcohol.

Today, however, the situation has markedly changed. Indeed, not only is alcohol consumption by women more socially acceptable, it’s practically a prerequisite of women’s modern lives. Studies show, for example, that nearly 10% of Australian women over the age of 18 exceeded lifetime risk guidelines, consuming more than 2 drinks, on average, every single day.

Binge Drinking Among Young Adults

Now more than ever, binge drinking in college seems to be as much a rite of passage for girls as it long has been for boys. But it is not just female college students who are partaking to excess. In a recent study of binge drinking among Australian women, it was found that nearly 30% of Australian women aged 14-29 regularly drink to excess on Saturdays, consuming more than 4 drinks per episode on average.

However, as significant as the physical, psychological, and social consequences may be for males, young women face even greater risks.

Binge drinking carries with it profound physical and mental health risks. For both males and females, binge drinking can increase the risk of alcohol-related fatalities as well as lethal alcohol poisoning. Additionally, heavy drinking, even episodically, can damage the heart, lungs, and kidneys, and can contribute to a range of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. Research has shown that women’s increased metabolic sensitivity to the effects of alcohol, not surprisingly, only multiply these risks: lower body weights, generally speaking, and hormonal differences lead women to metabolise alcohol far differently than men of the same age, which means it takes far less alcohol for women to reach the stage of intoxication – and even black out – than it does men.

The Cocktail Hour

It’s not only young women who are drinking more: professional adult women, including women with families, are increasingly making alcohol a routine part of life. Cocktail hours with girlfriends or a glass of wine at the end of a hard day have become a social commonplace, often featured in popular films and television series, from Sex and the City to Scandal to the Real Housewives franchises.

Such a profound cultural shift has meant that the prevalence of both binge and chronic drinking among women is skyrocketing. And that means that the health consequences of drinking are also on the rise.

This is an especially troubling trend in the age of COVID-19, as alcohol abuse has been strongly associated not only with the emergence of alcohol-related disease but also with compromised immune function. This threatens to create a perfect storm, because research suggests that alcohol use is on the rise since the coronavirus outbreak, meaning that the very substance that women are turning to to help them cope with the stresses of the virus is the same substance that is making them more susceptible to it.

What Is to Be Done

Women who are contending with alcohol use disorder (AUD) must not try to battle the condition alone, even in this era of lockdowns. In fact, telehealth services are powerful tools for recovery, one whose utility is far going to outlast the pandemic. For this reason, if you or someone you love is struggling, help is just a phone call or a video chat away.

The Australian government has established a highly effective support structure to help those battling alcohol addiction, whenever, wherever, and however they may need it. This includes structured counselling programs that can be pursued either online or in person. Likewise, for those who need more intensive monitoring and support, in-patient treatment facilities are also widely available. These facilities can be especially important for the early stages of alcohol withdrawal when medical monitoring and medications may be needed to make the detox process not only more comfortable, but also safer.

The Takeaway

Women and alcohol have long had a complicated relationship, but as rates of consumption rise, that relationship has turned markedly more critical. This increased use is developing from a daily ritual for some to full-blown alcohol use disorder. With this dangerous turn, the need for support from healthcare providers, treatment programs, and government entities increases, and the most comprehensive treatment for alcohol use disorder comes when these institutions work together.

Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer passionate about workplace equity, and whose published works cover sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more. You can see more of her work by visiting her portfolio.

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