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Alcoholism: Contributing Factors

People with undiagnosed mental illness are more likely to self-medicate with alcohol. The negative effects of alcoholism continue to be a growing concern in Canada.  Health Canada estimates that 14% of the population suffers from the dangerous effects of alcoholism. The rest of Canadians either abstain from alcohol altogether, or drink in quantities that do not pose a significant health risk. But what exactly determines someone’s likelihood of falling into that 14% of Canadians who consume high enough quantities of alcohol to put them in danger?

Several factors, most of which people have little control over, determine the risk level of whether or not someone will develop alcoholism.

Underage Drinking and Adult Alcoholism

When people start abusing alcohol when they are underage, they have a much higher chance of alcohol abuse later in life.  Binge drinking (typically defined as consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion) is common in adolescence and young adulthood.  In Canada, over one third of students in from grades 7 through 9 have binged on alcohol.  Over 40% of aged 15 to 19 year olds have binged at least once in the past year.  More than a quarter of drinkers between the ages of 12 through 19 have binged 12 or more times in the past year.  Another national survey done recently has showed that 46% of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 of past-year drinkers consumed alcohol heavily at least once a month and 14% admitted to do so at least once a week.  This national survey showed that more than a third of young drinkers in Canada drank at a hazardous level.  Likewise, many provincial school surveys indicate that about a quarter of elementary and secondary students binge at least once a month and approximately 15% drink at a dangerous level.

Not only does this behaviour put them at risk for alcohol poisoning and unsafe choices like drunk driving, it also significantly increases their chances of becoming an alcoholic later in life. The statistics here are very telling. A recent survey reports that half of adults that began drinking before they were 14 became alcoholics later in life. However, of the people that waited to start drinking until they were of legal age, only 9% ever became alcohol dependent.

Elderly Drinkers and Unnoticed Alcoholism

Though people generally develop alcoholism as young adults, the negative effects of alcoholism are not exclusive to young populations. Elderly populations also struggle a great deal with alcohol dependence, but alcoholism it can be much harder to diagnose in older populations, because the symptoms of alcoholism can often look very similar to the effects of old age.

Alcoholism can also be more dangerous for older people, because they do not have to consume nearly as much alcohol to become intoxicated as young people do. Alcohol also interacts dangerously with some of the medications older people are likely to be taking, such as arthritis relievers or other types of painkillers. Furthermore, alcohol is more threatening to the organs of older people than it is to the organs of younger people.

How Does Gender Affect Risk of Alcoholism?

Men exhibit higher rates of alcoholism than women do.  While 20.4% of Canadian men abuse alcohol on a regular basis, 9.2% of Canadian women do.  The rate among females has gone down 2% from 2009. 

Even though men show higher rates of alcoholism, women’s bodies are more susceptible to the dangers of alcohol abuse. The long-term effects of alcoholism can be more detrimental to women than to men. Alcoholic hepatitis, brain damage, as well as cirrhosis are all effects of alcoholism that women are more prone to than men are.

Escaping the Past: Family Histories of Alcoholism

Teens who abuse alcohol have a higher chance of developing an addiction.Several factors increase the chances that people will begin drinking at a younger age. Adolescents who have a relative who has struggled with alcoholism are at a much higher risk of developing substance dependency. They are also at much greater risk if they experience any type of abuse or are a witness to any other type of family violence.  A recent study reported that 72% of women that meet the criteria for alcoholism said that they had experienced some form of abuse, while 27% of alcoholic men reported that they had been a victim of abuse. Similarly, other stressful situations such as the loss of a family member will also increase the chance that the adolescent will resort to alcohol. 

Race and Ethnicity as a Risk Factor in Alcoholism?

Race generally does not play a role in determining whether someone will experience alcohol dependence. The CCSA finds that most ethnicities have alcoholism rates that are consistent with the national average. However, due to genetic differences in the way that some ethnicities metabolize alcohol, First Nations show higher rates of alcoholism, while Asian-Canadians show lower rates of alcoholism.

Mental Health Issues a Risk Factor for Alcoholism?

A host of mental health issues greatly increase the likelihood that a person will become alcohol dependent. Likewise, many people with alcoholism suffer from psychiatric issues. Depression is the most widespread mental health issue that significantly increases the risk of alcoholism. Other common mental health issues that also increase someone’s risk of alcoholism are schizophrenia, anxiety and bipolar disorders.

Women are diagnosed with depression at higher rates than men are, but it is unknown whether that is because women actually experience depression more often, or if it is because men tend to hide depression with self-medicating tactics such as heavy drinking.

Other psychiatric issues, such as phobias or panic disorders, can also increase someone’s likelihood of alcohol dependence. Social phobias cause the patient to be excessively concerned about other people’s opinions of them, while panic disorders result from intense anxiety from a wide variety of stimuli. Patients who suffer from both ailments are likely to use alcohol to ease the debilitating effects of their symptoms, as a form of self-medication. Furthermore, for these patients, the rate of relapse after they receive treatment for alcoholism is very high.

Lastly, behavioural disorders are one more common psychiatric issue that may increase alcohol dependence. Kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD show greater rates of alcohol abuse as adults. People who exhibit inability to control their impulses or people who exhibit novelty-seeking tendencies are also at greater risk for substance dependency issues.

The relationship between alcoholism and psychiatric disorders is hazy, because it is difficult to know if someone has become an alcoholic as a result of their mental health issues, or if someone’s alcoholism has caused a chemical change that may have actually brought about a mental health issue.

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