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Female alcoholism remains hidden but widespread problem

A USA Today report said one-third of the estimated 17.6 million Americans with alcohol dependency are women. Photo illustration by David Wells

New York mother Diane Schuler gained national attention this summer when she crashed her car into an SUV because she had high levels of alcohol and marijuana in her system.

The accident killed Schuler, her daughter, her three nieces and three men in the SUV.

“If (Schuler) had been a man or a father, I think the reaction may have been a little different,” said Lauren Martin, coordinator for substance education at Elon.

But according to a USA Today report, one-third of the estimated 17.6 million Americans with alcoholism or alcohol dependency are women.

The report mentions the general public may be surprised by these figures because alcoholism in women is often ignored more than alcoholism in men.

But Mat Gendle, associate professor of psychology, said from a biological perspective, this statistic doesn’t surprise him.

“The basic neurochemistry and neurophysiology that underlies addiction is fundamentally the same in both men and women,” Gendle said.

Martin said she thinks the statistic may seem shocking to some people because of social expectations. She said she thinks women are often stereotyped or expected to act a certain way, citing Schuler’s case as an example.

Gendle said he agrees social expectations contribute to people’s perceptions of women and alcohol, particularly in terms of sexual encounters.

“For example, if a man in a college environment drinks to excess and then is sexually promiscuous as a consequence of that, he’s often labeled as funny or cool or he’s a stud,” Gendle said. “Whereas if a woman does that, more often than not she’s labeled as a slut.”
Martin said it’s difficult to say whether the statistics among college-age women with alcohol dependency are similar to the national statistics because it is much harder to measure alcoholism in a college setting.

“The problem with college students is sometimes a lot of their drinking mimics what looks like alcoholism, but it’s not considered alcoholism because it’s typically seen as a temporary thing,” Martin said. “The problem is about a third of those students don’t drop those high-risk drinking behaviors.”

Martin said typically more outgoing, thrill-seeking students will continue to engage in high-risk drinking practices after college, but she thinks women more often turn to alcohol to cope with other problems.

Significant events in women’s personal lives like divorce, death or infertility can drive them to drink. The stress of balancing work, family and other responsibilities or the onset of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety can also be factors, Martin said.

“I think there are a lot of different things that contribute to (women) turning to alcohol or other drugs to deal with it, to medicate themselves with that, to become numb to whatever it is they’re feeling,” Martin said.

According to Martin, women’s bodies don’t process alcohol as quickly as men’s. So if a man and a woman weigh the same and consume the same amount of alcohol, the woman will be more intoxicated.

These physiological differences between men and women can contribute to female alcoholism.
“I think about (alcoholism) in terms of a disease model in that there’s something physiologically that’s gone awry,” Gendle said. “So the compulsive need that alcoholics have to drink a lot is really based in a physiological alteration in the same way lots of other diseases are.”

When undergoing treatment, Gendle said alcoholics need to address both the medical issues that arise from alcohol dependency and the behavioral issues at the root of the problem.

“In the short term, they need to go through some sort of medically supervised detox because trying to quit cold turkey if you’re an alcoholic is extremely dangerous,” Gendle said. “There are all sorts of physiological side effects that in some circumstances can be deadly.”

Martin said while some long-term treatment centers are improving in terms of addressing problems specific to female alcoholics, there are still some issues that need to be rectified for women to receive the most effective care.

Many treatment centers are not set up for people who have children, Martin said, so if women are single mothers and the treatment facility has no day care, they may choose not to seek treatment in favor of staying home with their children.

Gendle said another challenge is the idea that alcoholics are weak, immoral or bad people. He said while alcoholics should not be completely absolved because it is still their choice to seek treatment, it is important to realize alcoholism is a medical condition with a physiological basis.
“I think there needs to be a lot of education and ownership (about female alcoholism),” Martin said. “You need to educate yourself on what you can actually handle.”

source: The Pendulum

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