Alcoholism Is Becoming an Epidemic in Rural America

Much has been made of the U.S. opioid epidemic in recent years, but a similar public health crisis in America is simultaneously more silent and more prevalent. Although socially acceptable within all facets of society, alcohol is highly addictive, and prolonged use of the substance can cause a multitude of health problems.

Alcohol-related death is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., behind only tobacco and poor diet/physical inactivity, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Approximately 88,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes every year, and the annual economic burden of alcohol misuse is around $249 billion.

In 2016, more than 56,000 deaths were attributed to opioids, and those numbers received far more press than alcohol-related deaths. Perhaps that’s because alcohol use is more socially acceptable, or maybe it’s due to the popularity of the substance: The aforementioned NIAAA study reports that more than 70% of Americans drank an alcoholic beverage within the last year. Among those individuals, an estimated 15.1 million struggle with alcoholism.

It’s important to note that the alcohol epidemic may be compounded in rural areas, where daily life can be harsh and healthcare facilities are few and far between. In Indiana, about 14% of the population lives in rural areas, and nearly half of the state’s 55 rural counties are medically underserved. Thus, rural populations provide a unique set of challenges where healthcare is concerned, especially in the realm of alcohol addiction treatment.

Negative Effects of Alcohol

In advertisements, alcohol is typically associated with a good time — hanging out on the beach or in a trendy club with friends, laughing, and socializing. However, that glorified image completely ignores the dark side of alcohol use, which can negatively affect the body and mind, and makes alcohol rehab infinitely more challenging than most other drugs. One of the most glaring mental health effects of alcohol is depression, and the two conditions are intrinsically linked.

Those living with depression may turn to alcohol as a legal form of self-medication — and develop alcohol dependence in the process. In addition, the depression-alcohol cycle may be partly to blame for the prevalence of drunk driving on college campuses and elsewhere. Drunk driving causes 30 deaths every day across the U.S., but that’s not the only risk associated with alcohol misuse.

Prolonged or heavy alcohol use can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive problems, and even erectile dysfunction and other reproductive harm. Some of these conditions can be amplified when alcohol is used in tandem with prescription medications, such as antidepressants and antihistamines.

Treatment Options in Rural America

Binge drinking is a glaring sign that an individual’s alcohol use has evolved into alcoholism. And sadly, binge drinking is a widespread problem in rural and urban areas alike. Approximately one out of six adults in the U.S. binge drinks at least four times per month, reports Regis College. Binge drinking and alcoholism present unique challenges within substance abuse treatment, and many individuals find success with a combination of medical intervention and counseling.

Substance abuse counselors who serve rural populations are keenly aware of the environmental factors that may lead to alcohol dependency. Low educational attainment, poverty, isolation, and unemployment all contribute to substance abuse, and they are common in rural America. Of the 55 rural counties mentioned above, it’s also mentioned that residents are at a disadvantage when it comes to healthcare, including substance abuse treatment.

Other roadblocks to healthcare among rural populations include further distances to treatment, lower income, aging patterns, and lower levels of insurance coverage. Lack of treatment access, coupled with minimal transportation options, is a major issue in rural Indiana. Within the state, there are 122 hospitals, and only 38 of those are located in rural areas. For many who wish to recover from alcoholism, hospitals provide the first steps toward recovery, and obtaining access to those facilities is imperative to the process.

Despite Challenges, Recovery is Possible

Along with hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers also tend to be located in urban areas, and rural residents seeking treatment may need to procure help and/or transportation from friends or family. Loved ones can also help those with a drinking problem to recognize some of the signs that alcohol use has progressed into something more serious. Common signs of alcoholism include frequent hangovers, periods of memory loss (sometimes called “blackouts”), and daily decisions that are motivated by alcohol.

For many alcoholics, the idea of treatment is too much to handle on one’s own. In fact, only about 7% of alcoholics seek treatment, but their chances of recovery are higher if they have the support of friends and family. Support can include encouraging medical treatment, helping with legal issues, and discouraging risky behaviors. In a rural setting, simply spending more time with an alcoholic loved one may help them to feel less isolated and decrease their alcohol consumption.

While alcohol is socially acceptable, in some ways, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Millions of Americans fall into the pattern of alcoholism every year, and rural populations are especially susceptible to the disease. Medically assisted alcohol detox is a common treatment option, but individuals in rural areas may need additional help in order to leave alcohol behind. Substance abuse counseling and support from family and friends may be key to bridging the treatment gap among rural populations, in Indiana and across the U.S.

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Brooke Faulkner is a mother of two and wilderness enthusiast. When she's not writing, she can usually be found zipping around the mountains on her ATV.

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