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The Drug Epidemic No-one is Talking About — Alcoholism

By on September 25, 2018 in Blog with 0 Comments

Troubled young man consuming vodka

America is in the grips of a mental health crisis. Due to the subjective nature of mental illness and pervasive underdiagnosis, it is difficult to say with certainty whether our nation’s combined psychological health is deteriorating or improving.

However, the signs do not look good. Official figures show that while the suicide rate fell through the latter part of the 1980s and 1990s, suicides have increased substantially since then and are now broaching unprecedentedly high territory. In the year 2000 around 10 out of 100,000 members of our society lost their lives to suicide each year — the figure now stands at 14. In real terms, around 15,000 more people took their own lives in America last year than at the turn of the century.

Disability benefits awarded to mental illness sufferers have risen significantly since the 1980s. The state of mental health in America is also inextricably linked to the surge we’re witnessing in drug dependency. The opioid abuse epidemic claimed the lives of over 42,000 Americans in 2016, a staggering five-fold increase over 1999.

This heartbreakingly glib remark by one reader captures the scenario better than just about any other: “More Americans are choosing to be stoned or dead than ever before.”

This public health crisis is wreaking devastating consequences on its victims and their loved ones and no community has been spared the damage. But in the wake of headlines dominated by opioid abuse, another insipid and damaging dependency issue has crept up almost unnoticed.

Alcoholism is surging and the roots of the problem are likely to have much in common with the opioid crisis. The national conversation on tackling opioid abuse is essential and long overdue, but we cannot let it overshadow other disturbing and interrelated aspects of America’s mental health picture.

In this article, we unravel some of the trends in alcohol abuse over time and set about unearthing the reasons why this issue is affecting more and more individuals.

Alcohol abuse: the trends

Alcohol use disorder over time in the USA

The lens has been so firmly focused on the opioid crisis that few are even aware of the upward trend in the prevalence of alcohol use disorders.

The Washington Post, using data from the CDC, uncovered some alarming facts regarding alcohol use in a piece analyzing trends between 1979 and 2014. Up until the turn of the century, the picture with respect to alcohol use appeared to be improving. But complacency appears to have set in and we are now surging past generational records in alcohol-related deaths.

Alcohol related deaths over time

  • Between 2002 and 2014, alcohol-related deaths rose by a staggering 37%
  • The 30,700 alcohol-related deaths in 2014 rise to around 90,000 when deaths indirectly caused by alcohol are factored in (e.g. drink driving, alcohol-related accidents, homicides committed under the influence)
  • Despite the heavy attention on the opioid crisis, more people died from alcohol-related causes in 2014 than from heroin and prescription painkiller overdoses combined

The alcoholism epidemic appears to be hiding in plain sight as policymakers and media discourse focus squarely on illicit drug use.

Eagle-eyed readers will already have spotted the striking similarity in the patterns of alcohol abuse and suicide over time. Some may look to a hypothesis linking excessive alcohol use with suicide ideation, but a shared pathology may be a likelier source of the overlapping trends.

Declining mental health and growing feelings of despair and hopelessness likely underpin the surge in suicides, drug abuse, and alcoholism respectively.

Why are people turning to alcohol?

A strong body of evidence has accumulated over the years supporting the notion that alcoholism has a significant genetic component. Twin and adoption studies have highlighted the fact that children of people with alcohol use disorders are substantially more likely to develop issues with alcohol themselves, even in the absence of environmental factors.

However, what’s clear is that not all individuals with risk factors for the development of alcoholism will actually go on to develop a problem with their drinking. What the CDC data showed is that the percentage of US adults who drink on at least one occasion per month rose 2% to 56.9%.

Perhaps more interesting though is information regarding heavy alcohol use and binge drinking. Mortality risk in these groups is substantially higher than in the general population, whereas the risks and benefits of moderate drinking are less clear-cut.

One interesting find is that the percentage of women reporting at least one binge drinking session (five or more drinks) rose almost 2% to 17.4%. It is this kind of risky drinking behavior that fuels cases of acute alcohol poisoning and drives the long-term risk of cirrhosis higher.

As data show worrying increases in suicidality and mental illness, we are left to ponder the clear possibility that the tandem surge in alcohol and drug abuse are coping mechanisms adopted by Americans in a dangerous attempt to address their issues through self-medication.

Ongoing stigma almost certainly leads millions to suffer in silence for fear of seeking treatment. Those with undiagnosed mental health issues may be risking their wellbeing by starting on a path toward debilitating addiction.

A shared pathology

An alcohol use disorder can present in widely different ways depending on the individual in question. Many become adept at hiding their drinking or rationalizing their alcohol use as non-problematic to both themselves and others.

For instance, some people who meet the definition of alcohol abuse are adamant that their drinking behavior is not ‘true’ alcoholism because they don’t drink during the day, or because they don’t ‘blackout’ from their drinking sessions. However, these people may still be harming their physical and mental health by consuming excess alcohol.

What’s clear is that as a society we must tackle the root causes of alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness head-on. We are witnessing a worrying trend of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse rising in tandem with each other.

In understanding the despair and suffering of the victims of this epidemic we must show deeper introspection to reflect on the changes needed to prevent alcoholism in the first place and to treat those who fall into its trap.

In this age of overwhelming social media, people can end up feeling ‘atomized’ — small, insignificant, and unable to impact on their communities in positive and meaningful ways. Nihilism and feelings of hopelessness are also growing in the vacuum left behind by the breakdown of traditional institutions. These gaps are increasingly being filled with peer pressure and relentless competitiveness that serves to reduce people’s self-worth and contentment.

Overcoming devastation and despair

Whether we’re tackling alcoholism, drug abuse, or suicide, we know that parallels exist everywhere within and between the conditions. For those specifically trying to overcome an alcohol problem — know that the liver has an enormous capacity for restoration.

It is an incredible organ that can take a significant beating from our poor habits and still continue in its essential functions. But you also must know — even the liver has its limits and the longer you continue abusing alcohol, the greater the likelihood that you will inflict irreversible damage on the organ. Alcohol abuse can lead to cirrhosis and, ultimately, complete liver failure.

It’s hard to kick an addiction because the condition take us into its grip and steadfastly refuses to let go. Addiction is a horrible thing to suffer through: cravings, withdrawals, relapses — all of these experiences can overwhelm even the strongest of individuals.

But remember: there is help out there to quit. Speak to your doctor about medication and consider entering a rehabilitation facility. In the meantime, also try one of these helpful organizations for guidance:

Last Updated: May 13th, 2019

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About the Author

About the Author: Tom Andrews BSc is the editor of MentalWellnessToday.com. He devotes his time to psychology and mental health research and also enjoys climbing, hiking, and team sports. Tom is a contributor to several other highly regarded health magazines and blogs.

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