By Saren LeCompte, LCPC
As winter turns to spring and the weather begins to change, Chicagoans are eager to get out of their houses and get outside. After a mild, albeit long winter, people are looking forward to sun, festivals, warmer temperatures and engaging with others. Socializing often goes hand in hand with drinking, particularly in the spring and summer months, so it is important to recognize that April is Alcohol Awareness Month.
Alcoholism often develops from sustained alcohol use over time. “Addiction can begin to set in within a few months however. Over time regular consumption of alcohol can alter brain chemicals which makes an individual crave alcohol as a means of avoiding feeling poorly” (quitalcohol.com). The problem can be two-fold; people often drink to avoid dealing with difficult feelings or situations, or their drinking can make situations or negative emotions appear more dire than they may actually be. It is difficult to identify the problems of alcohol consumption when it has become a part of the social fabric and a cultural norm for many youth and young adults. It is frequently portrayed in the media as benign.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “in 2015, 26.9 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month; 7.0 percent reported that they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month.” The NIAAA goes on to define binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above; this typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours. While these numbers may not seem significant, it is estimated that “88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.”
Whether it is an acquaintance, family member, friend or even yourself, it is helpful to know the effects of alcohol use and potential abuse, and what to look for. Commonly observed effects include: stomachache, nausea, slurring speech, slowed reaction time and hangovers. More persistent use can also include: changes in physical appearance/hygiene, changes in behaviors, emotional outbursts, decreased performance at work, isolation/withdrawal from others, memory issues, anxiety and depression.
Understanding the connection between mental health and alcohol use is important. While initially alcohol can often elicit a positive mood and experience, alcohol is a depressant and can make existing problems seem worse, enhance the level of depression you felt prior to drinking, or exacerbate depressive symptoms. In fact, long-term alcohol use/abuse elicits similar symptoms to that of depression. This is often why there is a greater chance of comorbid diagnoses of depression and alcoholism. Regarding anxiety, “drinking excessively induces symptoms of anxiety and can even trigger panic attacks due to the effects that alcohol has on the body” (alcoholrehab.com). Additionally, studies have shown that self-harm and suicide rates increase with sustained alcohol use. According to a study of young people who drank while depressed (Medical Observer, 2009), “those who might already be contemplating suicide may feel more depressed while drinking, causing them to want to end it even more. Also, drinking makes people lose the inhibitions and rational thought they have when not drinking, thus making their tendency for a suicide attempt more likely.”
After knowing what to look for and understanding the impact alcohol could have on an individual, how does one then proceed? For many people, there are perceived barriers to taking action. For example, jeopardizing the relationship, questioning whether intervention may do more harm than good, or fear that your suspicions may be incorrect. Whatever a person’s concerns may be, speaking up and letting someone know that you care is far more beneficial than being complacent. Identifying concerns while promoting love and support may be off putting for the other individual, but it could also elicit insight, recognition and progress towards necessary changes in behavior. Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are available to further assist with the process and programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other substance abuse programs have proven to be beneficial for some.
Through increasing awareness and education surrounding alcohol consumption and abuse, people may feel better equipped to spot the symptoms and address any concerns of sustained use. Support is key to someone dealing with addiction, so whether you are struggling or know someone who may be, let Alcohol Awareness Month be an opportunity to elicit change.