There is no question that the past year-and-a-half has taken a stressful emotional toll on many people. Americans are facing multiple mental health crises amid a global pandemic. Overdose deaths hit a new shocking record high. Suicide rates have increased among communities of color. Alcohol use increased widely throughout the adult population.
Women particularly have increased their alcohol use. According to a RAND Corporation study, women increased their heavy drinking days by 41% compared to before the pandemic. Heavy drinking for women is defined as 4 or more drinks over the course of a few hours.
Unfortunately, excessive alcohol use can quickly take a toll on women’s health. Doctors are seeing a sharp increase in alcoholic liver disease among women in their late 20s and early 30s. Alcoholic liver disease includes fatty liver, scarring from cirrhosis, and alcoholic hepatitis. Because women’s bodies process alcohol differently than men, alcoholic liver disease can become a threat for them over a much shorter period of time.
Why are Women Drinking More?
Researchers have linked problem drinking among women to stress, depression, and trauma. Death in the family, divorce, miscarriage, and other specific traumatic events are more likely to precipitate excessive alcohol use for women than they are for men. And when it comes to having an emotional impact, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected women in many different aspects of life.
According to the U.S. National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report, when compared to men, women reported higher rates of pandemic-related changes in productivity, mood, sleep, health-related anxiety, and frustration with the inability to partake in enjoyable activities. Women are also more likely to take on the burden of household tasks, child-rearing, and caregiving than their male counterparts. Stay-at-home orders at the onset of the pandemic led to women having to take on these responsibilities without any kind of assistance. Women with children under the age of 18 reported higher rates of clinically significant anxiety compared to men with children under the age of 18 and women who did not have minor children.
This Didn’t Start With the Pandemic
While COVID-19 certainly exacerbated excessive drinking for women, the rate at which women are drinking in excess has been on the rise since 2001. Between 2001 and 2013 there was a 58% increase in women’s heavy drinking as opposed to 16% in men. In the same time period there was an 84% increase in women’s one-year prevalence of an alcohol use disorder versus 35% in men.
There is no concrete answer for why the drinking habits of women have changed so drastically in the past twenty years. However, it’s likely that changing societal norms around female drinking have played a big part. In the past, men have typically been heavier drinkers than women. But data from drinking surveys taken after the new millennium women’s alcohol use is gradually catching up with men.
Alcohol companies have also begun to implement marketing campaigns specifically targeted at women. These campaigns may have also helped contribute to the changing societal beliefs about the “acceptability” of female alcohol use. A common theme in these marketing campaigns is alcohol use as a way for the busy woman to unwind. And the reach is broad. The message of “You’re so busy, you deserve a drink!” can apply to a stressed mom wanting to relax with a glass (or bottle) of wine, to a work-hard play-hard business woman looking to let loose after a long workday with cocktails.
In short, alcohol is advertised to women as a coping mechanism and the “treat yourself” attitude in a bottle. But it’s important that women targeted by these campaigns be made aware that the product being sold has the potential to cause negative physical and mental health outcomes.
Normalized Drinking Means Many Women Don’t Know How Their Health is Affected
Many women aren’t aware how their alcohol use may be affecting their health. A 2018 study published in The Lancet found that no amount of alcohol use is healthy. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to completely abstain from alcohol use. But educating women about the potential harms of excessive alcohol use and what exactly the definition is of “excessive” will help curb negative health outcomes and decrease overall drinking.
Medical providers are a great starting point for education about the health effects of alcohol use. But unfortunately, many healthcare providers aren’t even talking to patients about their alcohol use. More than 80 percent of adults report that they have never been asked by a doctor about their alcohol use.
A quick discussion with a doctor about how alcohol use could be affecting their health would help many women cut back on how much they are drinking. Even if they don’t cut back right away, a conversation with a medical provider will enable a woman to have the knowledge that drinking could be harming her health, even if she isn’t drinking in a way that societally would be seen as problematic.
Another important piece of the puzzle to curbing excessive alcohol use for women is to make alternative, healthy coping mechanisms available. Alcohol use is a quick, relatively inexpensive way for women to “cope” with stress, anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental anguish. Some women may see it as being the only option. Access to free or inexpensive mental health care could make a difference in whether or not women feel the need to drink to cope.