Seven Crucial Lessons from Quitting Drinking

Race, Gender Affect Use of Alcohol Treatment Services

Posted on September 13th, 2014

In the U.S., alcohol abuse and alcoholism are significant problems for both men and women, as well as for people from various racial/ethnic backgrounds. However, access to alcohol treatment options is not necessarily uniform among social groups. In a study published in July 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of U.S. researchers used information from an ongoing, large-scale project called the National Alcohol Survey to investigate gender-based or racial/ethnic differences in involvement in appropriate treatment programs for alcohol problems. These researchers concluded that both gender-related issues and racial/ethnic issues may impede access to needed care.

Gender and Alcohol Problems

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration keeps track of gender-related trends in alcohol abuse and alcoholism (i.e., alcohol use disorder) through an annual project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Figures compiled from the latest version of this survey (covering the year 2012) show that age has a strong influence on the rates of serious alcohol problems among males and females. Among all people over the age of 11, males develop diagnosable problems roughly twice as often as females. A similar disparity exists between men and women age 18 or older. However, preteens and teenagers of both genders have essentially equal risks for alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism.

Racial/Ethnic Background and Alcohol Problems

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health also tracks racial/ethnic disparities in the risks for developing diagnosable alcohol use disorder. The highest rate of problems (21.8 percent of the total population group) appears in people with American Indian/Alaska Native ancestry. The second most commonly affected group (at a rate of 10.1 percent) is people with ancestry traceable to at least two racial/ethnic populations. African Americans, European Americans and Hispanic/Latinos all have similar rates for alcohol use disorder (8.7 to 8.9 percent), while Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders have an affected rate of 5.4 percent. The lowest rate (3.2 percent) occurs among people of Asian American descent.

Impact on Treatment Access

Roughly 16.8 million people in the U.S. have a need for specialized alcohol treatment, but do not receive it. Some of these people are aware of the severity of their alcohol problems, while others are not. Among those individuals with awareness of their alcohol-related issues, common reasons for not getting help include not wanting to enter treatment (roughly 50 percent of those affected) and not having the financial means to enter treatment (roughly 30 percent of those affected), as well as fear of the negative job-related consequences of entering treatment and lack of awareness of appropriate avenues for treatment.

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from the Alcohol Research Group and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health used data from three versions of the National Alcohol Survey (conducted at five-year increments in 2000, 2005 and 2010) to explore the impact of gender and racial/ethnic background on the odds of receiving treatment for alcohol use disorder. Forms of treatment under consideration included alcohol-specific inpatient or outpatient programs and 12-step or mutual support programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Men and women from three racial/ethnic groups—European Americans, African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos—were included. All of these individuals had experienced diagnosable alcohol problems at some point in their lives.

The researcher concluded that, generally speaking, African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos receive treatment for diagnosable alcohol problems at a lower rate than European Americans. They also concluded that women receive treatment less often than men. When they dug further, the researchers found that, between African Americans and European Americans, significant disparities in treatment access occur among women but not among men. In addition, they found evidence that the same gender-specific gap occurs between Hispanic/Latinos and European Americans. African American men actually receive specialized treatment for alcohol problems at a higher rate than European American men.

Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that women in general, and heavy-drinking women in particular, have a pressing need for increased access to specialized care for alcohol problems. They also note the clear presence of racial/ethnic-based differences in access for most individuals, and call for further research into the underlying reasons for these differences. In addition, they call for efforts to improve access for underserved racial/ethnic groups.

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