Alcohol and women – the gap is narrowing

In Ancient Rome, an alcoholic woman was considered such an affront to society she could be legally put to death.  It was assumed that every woman who drank alcohol was also promiscuous, another reason to put her to death. We still have women treated with rejection, disgust, prejudice, apathy or indifference who suffer from drug addiction, alcohol addiction or drunkenness.

Today, the gap between the amount that women drink relative to men is much narrower and in the younger age groups, girls are drinking more than boys. Recent studies show that in Ireland 52% of young women compared to 48% of young men have been drunk before the age of sixteen. Looking at the damage that alcohol inflicts on women this is an alarming statistic and needs to be highlighted.  Women are more vulnerable than men to the medical consequences of alcohol.

 Women need to educate themselves on the harmful effects of alcohol on their bodies.

When we look at research carried out, it states that addiction or dependence on alcohol progresses at a faster rate in women than in men, a phenomenon referred to as the “telescoping effect”.  For example women develop alcohol induced liver disease, with a lower intake  and fewer years  of drinking than men. They are more likely than men to develop alcohol induced hepatitis and to die from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. Women are also more susceptible to alcohol related heart disease than men, even though they may drink less alcohol than men over their lifetime. Other studies have identified an an association between drinking alcohol and breast cancer with one study by Hernandez and his colleagues stating that women who consume just one drink per day have a 1O% higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink. They also have an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, as well as a weakening of the heart muscles which affect the lungs. Alcohol also affect the brain with binge drinking, (now a regular thing with women) causing heart irregularity and sudden death. It also causes problems with stomach ulcers, internal bleeding and cancer.

Research also shows that female reproductive health is affected by the heavy use of alcohol and it also markedly interrupts regular menstrual cycling, ovulation and fertility.  For young girls even moderate alcohol use has been shown to reduce oestrogen levels and also disrupts normal growth and body development. In midlife, alcohol misuse can result in early menopause as well as impacting on hormone levels, affects  bone health and accelerates cognitive and physical decline. Many women use alcohol to increase sexual responses, where in fact,  it decreases sexual functioning. Prolonged use of alcohol has been found to have a negative effect on desire or arousal for women.

Because women have more body fat than men,  alcohol is less diluted in women and it takes longer to break down, so women get drunk faster than men.  It is important that women do not try to keep up with the rate men drink at for that reason. Alcohol is measured in standard drinks.  A pint is two standard drinks and a pub measure of spirits is 1.1 standard drinks. A glass of wine or beer is one standard drink. ( A half a pint is a standard drink).

Drinking three or more standard drinks a day puts women at risk of diverse health problems and drinking more than 11 standard drinks across a week should be the maximum. If you drink more than this you are drinking too much. If you can drink large amounts of alcohol be it wine or any other, without getting  drunk,  it does not mean that that is ok. You have developed a tolerance for alcohol by drinking a lot and this means you are drinking regularly over the risk limit which leads to damage to your internal organs,  including the pancreas which is extremely painful and can be fatal.

Depression is closely linked to heavy drinking in women and women who drink alone at home are more likely to have drinking problems. This is becoming more of a problem with cheap wine and other alcohol being freely and cheaply available in off-licenses. Female alcoholics have a death rate of 50 to  100 percent higher than those of their male alcoholics.  Alcohol abuse leads to a pattern of missing work or skipping child care responsibilities, drinking in dangerous situations, such as before or while driving or having  fractious relationships within family and friends, getting into fights and being aggressive and unruly.

Young women under the age of 21 should not drink alcohol according to the research experts. Drinking at an early age increases the likelihood of liver, heart and brain disease and the suppression of the immune system. Because women become pregnant in their twenties and thirties, this group faces the greatest risk of having babies with growth, mental impairments and foetal alcohol syndrome which is caused by drinking during pregnancy.

Older women are especially sensitive to the stigma of being an alcoholic and thereby hesitate to admit to having a drinking problem. They are more likely to use other medications that can affect mood and thought, such as those for anxiety and depression. These psychoactive medications can interact in harmful ways with alcohol. Aging reduces the body’s ability to adapt to alcohol leading to high blood pressure, depression, sleeping problems, heart problems and falls.  The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women over 65 should limit their drink to one a day.

If you drink more than the safe amount every day, examine these signs of alcoholism:

  • craving or a strong need or compulsion to drink;
  • loss of control or the inability to stop once you have begun;
  • physical dependence, like having withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating, shakiness, anxiety;
  • tolerance, the need for increasing amounts of alcohol to get the same buzz.

Women should also recognise that other factors escalate drinking further when they are experiencing the following;  parents and siblings with alcohol problems, a partner who drinks heavily, the ability to “ hold her liquor” more than others,  a history of depression, a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse.  The presence of any of these factors is a good reason to be especially careful with drinking. Much research to understand the consequences of alcohol abuse and addiction in women and to find new ways to prevent and treat alcoholic problems are ongoing with the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Most of the research done previously was about men.

Finding out why women drink too much is the first step. The role of genetics, and family environment and also a woman’s life such as the type of job she has, whether she combines family and work, a change in marriage status, divorce,  departure of children, infertility, relationship and sexual problems all appear to add to the necessity of women drinking to excess.  Scientists also want to know why women in general seem to develop long-term health problems more quickly and are examining issues like alcohol and breast cancer and the extent that alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis in some women. They are also trying to determine   how to identify women who may be at risk for alcohol problems and to ensure that treatment will be effective when the time comes. Binge drinking has become fashionable and acceptable leading to blackouts and memory damage and the ability to remember and to learn.

So why have there been such an increase in women drinking alcohol?  Given the long-term damaging effects to mental and physical health why would anyone lay up such a store of problems?  Drinking leads to feelings of sadness and depression and those who consume alcohol  have  a much higher risk of suicide or attempted suicide. We have a serious problem with binge drinking in Ireland, and this can and does lead to alcohol poisoning and it can be fatal. Hangovers that make you miserable is highlighting the body’s way of saying “you are abusing me”,  leaving headaches, sick stomachs and depression to be dealt with the next day.

Drinking alcohol is a choice we make.  We can live quite well and even happier without it, so is the time here when we must ask ourselves “why”. Try  abstaining for a while and see if life becomes better, easier and more tranquil.  I can assure you it will.

Peg Hanafin, MSc.  5/08/2014

Author of “Getting more out of life”

What is religion in today’s world?

I watched a thought-provoking priest giving a sermon recently on the television and when he said that the recession had increased the numbers attending special ceremonies at Christmas and Easter it made me think about how we feel about religion and its necessity in our everyday lives. He said we turn to religion when we are in trouble, sad or seeking some favour. He is correct of course, that is what we do.  So what is religion? The definition in the dictionary says religion is an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate to humanity and to an order of existence. The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with faith, belief systems, or a set of duties, the service and worship of God or the supernatural.

A global report in 2012 reports that 59% of the world population is religious, with more women than men having religious beliefs.

We live in a world full of mysteries and unknowns. Fear of the unknown makes people turn to religion and to God.  It is this fear of the unknown that makes religion such an attractive alternative and is the root of all religious beliefs. Almost all religions are designed to bring about a packaged peace of mind and give us values and strong beliefs and an attitude to live by.   Religion offers comfort and a moral guidance for how to live life and helps us believe in a life after death.

We do not hear much preached about hell in today’s sermons, any more than we hear about grave sins, but it is these fears that a strong belief in God eliminates and gives people hope for the receiving of the Lord’s compassion at the end of life.  People do turn to religion in bad times and seek solace and answers to questions that are bigger and more complicated than they can understand, like when people have a terminal illness, but it is our own deep spirituality that sustain us eventually.

Freud saw religion as a way for people to reassure themselves that their difficult lives are worthwhile and tolerable in view of the benefits that may come in the afterlife. According to him, people just go along with the philosophy, morality and instructions that religion or the church dictates in their daily lives. Some think that religion is only a crutch for those who are weak and have no strong opinions.

Well, it may be true that religion is a crutch for many believers who have difficult lives and turn to faith as a solace to the soul.  Religion and the rules that govern a religion  gives a strong foundation upon which to build daily lives, stops people making serious mistakes and helps them find ways to care for others, puts boundaries and rules into a framework for living, which is of vital importance to our everyday lives.  Religion even used as a crutch is a useful tool, beneficial and helpful, but it must not be overused, or abused to a point where instead of helping to heal they cause disruption and damage. When we look at religious extremists and the damage they cause to the lives of others, we must accept that religions can and do harm people in the name of whatever God they support.

Religion is often used to control, manipulate and disempower people and to keep the oppressed silent and the militant obedient. We should ask ourselves have we handed over our direct connection with God and outsourced our spirituality in a blinded way to external powers, who decide the rules that govern religions of all hues?

The promise of life after death has kept many on the straight and narrow, and in recent years the damage done by the abuse of children and those vulnerable  by church clergy,  has left many questioning what they believed in and held sacred. There are no perfect people in this world so erosion of values and beliefs are a fact of life.

But fundamentally religion encourages positive changes in our lives. We have all experienced divine intervention in our lives in one way or another, even if we think it is coincidence.  Our faith teaches us humility, patience, gratitude, to reach out to others in our family, community and to those that need a helping hand. It also encourages us to challenge abuse of power, to stand up for the oppressed and downtrodden, and to fight injustice at every corner. Faith and religious beliefs also allow people to be truthful and loving of others. It also encourages us to fight against greed, corruption, manipulation, deceit and the abuse of power by those in authority and in leadership roles. Every individual must rely on their own spirituality to trust in themselves to loving and  making  just  and compassionate decisions.

If we believe that there is a loving God who created us, cares for us and want what is best for us, then it follows that blessings for a happy life will be showered on us when we practice love, care and sharing, all of which brings us closer to our God.  Religion and how we practice it is the right path in life, some people may disagree, but as faith leads to hope which in turn leads to a life of happiness and fulfilment, even those that consider it a crutch for bad times will benefit from faith in every area of life.

Religion has always been part of humanity and has taken a central role in virtually every civilization and culture. Critics are continually telling us that religion is on the way out, but we need only look at the numbers climbing holy mountains, attending sunrise masses, attending novenas, thronging to holy places, to see that people want to be part of religious beliefs.  It is a powerful and persistent part of our life and shows no sign of disappearing as the critics suggest.

Indeed that preacher was correct, since the recession we have seen a rise in churchgoers and professions of faith at every level. We are now facing a dwindling clergy and we must face up to the fact that we may have a society in the future that will be short of priests and religious to care for our religious needs. That is when we will have to resort to our own strengths of spirituality. With the absence of clergy to conduct funerals, weddings, sacraments or be at a bedside as someone dies, the awareness of how precious their presence were in our lives may only then be realised.

Our faith, beliefs and inner spirituality encourages us to love God, love our neighbour and live within the commandments of the Lord.  But we must also re-examine our dependence on external sources that have tried to take ownership of our individual spiritual development from without, to the detriment of our God-given spiritual power within, and to the escalation of our fears around the unknown.   We need to remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and asked to trust in His compassion and love and not feel ostracised by the choices we make in life. You can only feel outside the fold if you fail to nurture your own spirituality, which is God’s unique and personal gift to every human being.


Peg Hanafin, MSc 9/7/2014

Sent to Bulletin  11/07/2014

The controversy about the holding of suicide inquests

The  controversy  about the holding of suicide inquests is raised again by Barry Egan  in an interview with a mother of a young boy who died by suicide on the 27th December 2012 and printed by the Sunday Independent on the 13/07/2014.

In November 2013,  I wrote an article about the procedures  surrounding  inquests  held after someone has died by suicide and it appeared in many papers.  People affected  contacted me after the publication and I decided to write to all the Coroners in Ireland to see if some changes could be made as to how an inquest into death by suicide could be made more compassionate and family friendly.

There should be  no  whiff of criminality surrounding this type of inquest, as suicide has been decriminalised since July 1993.   A colleague and myself  did write to every Coroner in February of 2014. We had many replies from Coroners,  some  understanding the predicament for families, others saying that what was written did not happen in their jurisdiction and that they were well aware of the problems that surrounded the inquest for family members.  But on reading the interview with the lady, who may be high profile,  but felt the same way as all other families, speak about the ordeal of being at an inquest into her young son’s death, the subject has again risen as to what it is we could do to alleviate the upset  and trauma suffered to accommodate the requirements of the law.

Writing about the procedure in the last article I pointed up issues that could be changed without interfering with the basic process. The fact that the first contact with a family about the inquest is usually with the gardai   informing the family of the time and place,   gives a sense of criminality to the process. The place is usually in the courthouse or a hotel room,  neither of which allows for privacy,  and families have continued to say so.  The time span between the death and the inquest may be as long as 18 months.  Wherever the inquest is held,  it is a public event with a Coroner (acting as a judge), a  jury in some cases, uniformed  gardai,  journalists, the general public,  the witnesses called to give evidence, (which may be the first time that families will become aware of other facts) as well as members of the bereaved family, if they so wish to attend. This is a similar scenario as to what happens in any courtroom.  It is all in the public domain, a harsh reality for a parent or a loved one to be present to hear and  witness  perhaps  unknown  facts  about a close family member. The presence of many other people, some strangers, witnessing their grief and often fear, as to how their loved one died and what facts did others know that they were unaware of.  A  daunting  scenario.

Since suicide was decriminalised in July, 1993,  surely  twenty years on,  we should have found a way that families are not further traumatised by the inquest system, which is a requirement of our laws. There are no legal barriers to changing how the inquest is carried out, it is there to establish “the who, when, where and how” of unexplained deaths. The Act which  governs  the Coroner’s  Court  was established in 1962 and has not been reviewed since. The  Coroner’s  Court  is an independent office of the state and  a report published in 2000  had  more than 100  recommendations made but  little has changed. That report stated that rules should be capable of being amended and that changes in the work practice of Coroners are inevitable as the complexity and demands of modern society increase. These statements would appear to give a mandate to those in charge to change the system as they would see fit. Why don’t they?

The  Coroners  that made contact after receiving the letter are compassionate and understanding of the problems encountered. The lady in question did say that the Coroner’s Office could not have been nicer, but the fact that it was reported in every single newspaper the following day was hurtful and the inquest itself was very difficult.    The inquest did not answer any of the questions about the things she wanted to know about her son’s death and she wondered what public service was achieved by putting it into the public domain.

Every day in this country we have people who die by suicide and after the funeral is over they will face into an inquest at some stage. Surely the authorities that are in charge, and it is the County Manager in every county who pays for the service and could decide if he so wished the place where suicide inquests are held. In light of all we know and hear from those who have gone through the system is it not time to find a venue where public access may be difficult for onlookers and others not involved in the case, in which this most painful of events must be relived for the family involved?  In every town we have places that could be used to give privacy to those who grieve and perhaps have a support system in place to help people at a time of unimaginable pain. Some Coroners have set up people to be there to meet and explain the procedure and offer comfort but this is not widespread.

We as a society must raise our voice and stand up for people who are suffering what is an excruciating pain, who  remain silent because of the stigma and horror of what they have been through, and ask those who have the power to provide a place where dignity and privacy can be had for those who appear before,  what to them is a court of law.  All we need is for people who can make the change to have the courage and empathy  to do so. I know the Coroners would be amenable to this as they have said so, as often they themselves are deeply upset by what they reside over.

So why must we continue to read about people,  who should be accommodated by the State,  that must endure such a public outing of the trauma and deep despair they suffer in the aftermath of suicide. We can and should make other arrangements for this public hearing, that opens up  further  wounds  endured  by families, and give them the respect and support that they need at this time of unimaginable pain and distress.

In these times we never know whose door will be knocked on next, and if our own, I should hope that the necessary supports that could ease the burden of appearing for an inquest be considered and put in place without further delay right across every jurisdiction.


Peg Hanafin, Msc. Rehab/Couns. Psych.