How many people in the United States are currently suffering from an alcohol use disorder (AUD)? Would you guess that there are a few thousand? Or maybe even 100,000?
According to the most recent data, 14.1 million adults 18 and over now suffer from an AUD. It’s estimated that an additional 414,000 adolescents between 12 and 17 also have an AUD.
If that’s more than you expected, don’t feel alone – most people significantly underestimate just how common AUDs are. But why is this the case and what can we do about it?
Definitions of Alcohol Abuse
One reason why AUDs are far more common than most people realize is because alcohol “abuse” can be defined in many different ways. There are different ways a person can abuse alcohol and alcohol abuse can range from mild to severe.
For example, drinking a significant quantity of alcohol every day is one way that an alcohol use disorder can manifest. But it’s also possible for a person to drink only once or twice a week, but binge drink so heavily on those days that they also qualify for a disorder.
On top of that, a person who drinks four alcoholic beverages per day may not feel like they have an AUD – simply because they’re comparing themselves to a person who drinks eight alcoholic beverages per day.
The Popularity of Alcohol
AUDs are also underestimated because of the sheer popularity of alcohol. Alcohol is one of the most popular drugs in the United States, yet we rarely think of it or talk about it as a drug because so many people drink it on a regular basis and because it’s legal for adults over age 21.
The normalization of alcohol consumption is, in large part, responsible for people underestimating the mental health problems they experience because of their consumption. If all your friends are drinking as heavily and as frequently as you are, there’s no opportunity for you to realize that you have a problem affecting your life.
It’s very common for people to deny that they have any kind of alcohol related problem. People like to imagine that they’re in total control of their lives, even if those lives are spiraling out of control. People tell themselves that they can quit drinking any time they want, even if they can’t, and they come up with excuses for much of their problematic behavior.
As a result, heavy drinkers often continue going through their life drinking as heavily as they want and insisting that they don’t have a problem. Because the rest of us may not have an accurate way to determine whether someone has a “true” AUD, we take their word for it.
What to Do If You Suspect You Have an AUD
What should you do if you suspect that you have or are developing an alcohol use disorder?
- Record your habits honestly. Take an honest assessment of your habits. How often are you drinking? How much are you drinking? Do you drink more heavily or frequently when you’re under stress? Once you start taking an objective look, you might start to see things differently.
- Talk to your loved ones. Ask your loved ones if they think you have an alcohol problem. They may be reluctant to tell you, but if they feel scared for your health or wellbeing, it’s important to take their perspective seriously.
- Try to break (or change) your habit. If you feel you might have a problem, try to break or change your habit. See if you can go a week or two without drinking at all. If you can’t, it’s a sign that you don’t have much control over this habit.
- Consider getting help. There’s no shame in getting help. Working with professionals could be exactly what you need to fully recover from your AUD or alcohol addiction.
How We Can Improve Collectively
There are also some steps we can take to improve our approach to AUDs collectively:
- Educate yourself. Spend time learning more about AUDs, the effects of alcohol on the body and mind, and how to end alcohol addiction.
- Destigmatize substance use disorders. Having an AUD doesn’t make anyone a bad person. Too often, people refuse to acknowledge their problems and refuse to get help because of social stigma.
- Avoid enabling bad habits. Don’t excuse someone else’s reckless or dangerous behavior. Speak up and tell them the truth.
AUDs aren’t going away anytime soon. For as long as the alcohol remains popular and freely available, there are going to be people struggling with mental health issues related to alcohol. All we can do is offer better educational resources, more support, and more strategies to help prevent and minimize potential problems.