It’s National Women’s Health Week (May 14-20), an opportunity for social workers to encourage women to make their health a priority, including avoiding drinking too much alcohol. With their distinctive skillset and as key providers of mental and behavioral health services in a wide range of settings, social workers are in a unique position to prevent risky drinking among women. If you’re not sure how to begin—or why starting the conversation can make a difference—here are five facts you should know about women and alcohol:
1. Drinking among women has increased substantially over the last 20 years.
Though men still drink more overall than women do, gender gaps in drinking patterns are shrinking. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of women ages 18 and older who drink rose by 6 percent (while falling by 0.2 percent among men). Women’s binge drinking has also increased significantly (by 14 percent, compared to a 0.5 percent increase among men). Moreover, girls and young women ages 12 to 20 are now drinking more alcohol than same-aged males.
2. Women face greater health risks from drinking than men do.
Due to gender differences in body structure and chemistry, women experience more severe health risks from drinking compared to men, including blackouts, liver disease, faster progression of alcohol use disorder, and certain cancers—even when they consume less alcohol. Those who are pregnant or can become pregnant also risk alcohol-exposed pregnancy and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), a range of lifelong behavioral, intellectual, and physical disabilities that affect an estimated 1-5% of school children in the U.S.
3. Drinking during pregnancy often occurs with marijuana and tobacco use, and all pose risks to both mother and baby.
About 1 in 20 pregnant people report binge drinking in the past 30 days and 40% of those who drink during pregnancy say they also use one or more other substances, most frequently tobacco and marijuana. Prenatal alcohol exposure has been linked to increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). People with FASDs are at high risk for trouble in school, trouble with the law, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental health disorders. Using tobacco and marijuana during pregnancy have also been linked to health risks for both the mother and developing baby.
4. There is no safe type, no safe time and no safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant.
There is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy. There is also no safe time during pregnancy to drink. All types of alcohol can be harmful, including wine, beer, and liquor. Although some babies may not be affected by alcohol exposure during pregnancy, others may have lifelong effects. The safest thing to do to is to avoid any type of alcohol use throughout pregnancy.
5. Alcohol screening and brief intervention (SBI) is effective and relatively simple to do.
Alcohol SBI has been proven to reduce risky alcohol use, and is recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for use with all adults served in primary healthcare settings. Alcohol SBI is also endorsed by major medical professional organizations as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Screening with a validated instrument takes just a few minutes, followed by a brief conversation with those who are drinking too much, and referral to treatment when appropriate.
Since 2014, NASW, the NASW Foundation and the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute at The University of Texas at Austin Steve Hicks School of Social Work, have teamed-up with leading health workforce organizations and the CDC in a comprehensive national initiative to encourage health professionals to help prevent prenatal alcohol use. NASW is the only mental health workforce organization participating in this initiative.
Visit NASW’s Behavioral Health page for resources. Additional resources are also available:
Article by Diana Ling, MA, Program Manager; and Anna Mangum, MSW, MPH, Senior Health Strategist; Health Behavior Research and Training Institute, Steve Hicks School of Social Work, The University of Texas at Austin.