When I was growing up, I used to look up to my mother in awe. She was stunning with her hair drawn back in a chignon, dressed in original long, flowing dresses, nails perfectly manicured in a bright red hue. As she sashayed across the room with a whiskey sour in one hand and a cigarette dangling out of her mouth, I thought she was just so cool. The fact that she passed out nightly and could have a mean streak seemed to dissipate in the air. Truth was she had a love affair with alcohol.
Most likely to cover up all the trauma she experienced, the sudden death of her father, the institutionalization of her mother, her husband, (my father’s) suicide and on and on. Her alcoholism was hidden and the thought of her getting help was foreign. That was 1954.
Some 66 years later, it is clear that women now drink as much as men not just to have a good time but like Dorothy Schwartz to cope with the vicissitudes of living.
For nearly a century, woman have been closing the gender gap in alcohol consumption, binge drinking and alcohol use disorder. The alcohol industry changed its marketing strategy to reach the female market, which popularized “mummy juice, Wine o’clock and showed girls on college campuses having a ball and even pink packaging for spirit. Gone are the days when the alcohol industry had pretty women flank men who were drinking. Now it’s the girls who are doing the partying.
Like the cigarette industry’s 1960 Virginia Slims campaign that touted “You’ve come a long way, baby,” so too, has the alcohol market. According to US data from 2019, women in their early teens and early 20s are drinking and getting drunk at a much higher rate than their male peers for the first time since researchers began measuring such behaviors.
In 2019, for example 32% of all female high school students consumed alcohol compared with 26% male high school students. Likewise binge drinking (consuming 4 or more drinks at any one sitting) was more common among women than men. In 2019, 4% of all women overall and 8% of woman age 18-25 years old had an alcohol use disorder (CDC) The dangers of drinking while pregnant are well known and increase the chanceof FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome) and other problems.
This trend, according to NPR, parallels the rise in mental health conditions. Researchers worry, with good cause, that the long-term effects of COVID-19 pandemic could amplify both patterns.
One study published in JAMA last fall found a 14% rise in frequency of drinking for both sexes compared to 2019 with women reporting a 17% uptick in the number of drinking days – which translates to an additional drinking day per month for women
It is not only that women are drinking more, it’s that both physical and mental health are being affected. Women, as we know, react differently to alcohol than men do. It takes fewer drinks to experience a higher blood alcohol content due to body water distribution. Research shows women experience the health consequences of alcohol – liver and heart disease – more quickly. Other medical consequences can be increased risk for breast and other cancers, alcohol related cognitive decline, and sexual violence.
According to Dr. George Koob, director of NIAA, “woman are more susceptible to major depressive and anxiety disorders – about two fold or more than men. The added stresses of the pandemic, increased child-rearing responsibilities, changes on the work force, isolation, zoom school, cocktail zoom parties and the like have all added to the rise in drinking for woman.
Behavioral health care treatment for women has historically been less effective than it is for men. Mrs. Ford set the gold standard when she went public about her issues with alcohol, and women do well in treatment. Generally, it is more socially acceptable for women to be open and transparent with their feelings, which works in their favor in treatment, but often child care and other family responsibilities prevent them from getting treatment at all. There is, for example, a paucity of centers that allow young children to live with mothers while getting treatment.
The combination of more women drinking and women drinkers being more impacted by alcohol has created a health epidemic of women and alcoholism that is affecting millions of American families.
If you are worried about the women in your life – be it your daughter, your mother, your spouse, your partner, sister, aunt or even grandmother – there is help available. Alcoholism is debilitating and fortunately more women are likely to recover from alcoholism compared to men. (BFC) If you have a friend or a loved one that is experiencing mental distress coupled with a substance use disorder there are professionals and behavioral health care centers that are able to assess the physical, emotional, and spiritual concerns so that wellness and the ability to thrive can be achieved.