Alcohol Awareness Month

By Rebecca Wheeler – Health Educator

Availability heuristic, a fancy word buried deep in the vocabulary from that Introductory Psychology class you took in college. But whether you can recall the definition or not doesn’t lessen the impact this concept has on our daily lives. Availability heuristic is the example our mind immediately goes to when we are making judgments, and often, the “facts” we deem as true, aren’t true at all. For instance, based on publicity, how many people would you assume were attacked by sharks versus, say, debris falling from the sky? Give up? Actually you are 30 times more likely to be killed by falling debris from an airplane than a shark attack (Ruscio, 2002, p. 111).

Let’s use this idea to explore health. What’s the costliest health crisis facing our country today? Many would immediately say heart disease or obesity, and why not? Media is inundated with messages on how to decrease a child’s risk of obesity and the risks of a high sugar diet, and you cannot drive far down a major highway in February without seeing an American Heart Disease “Go Red” campaign billboard. Shear economics tells us that these issues are important. Some researchers have projected the US will spend upwards of $66 billion on obesity-related health care costs (Harvard), and yearly the US spends $107 billion to treat heart disease affecting 28 million people (“Five Year”, 2012).  But what if I told you there was a disease that affected almost twice as many people as heart disease, and the US spends less than 26% in treating this disease compared to heart disease.  In addition, this disease costs the US economy billions more than obesity-related illness. Give up? Addiction.

It’s true. In 2010, only $28 billion was spent on treating addiction. An illness that affects more than 40 million people carrying an economic healthcare cost of $524 billion dollars, and of that cost $185 billion is related to alcohol use, more than illegal drugs and tobacco (“Five Year”, 2012). Alcohol abuse is three times as common as other drug use disorders. Not to mention the $132 billion accrued in drunk driving costs, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2010 data.

Chances are our loved ones will be more likely to experience a substance use disorder than heart disease or obesity. Unfortunately, using that availability heuristic, we feel much more comfortable confronting our friend if we were concerned about their blood pressure than “drinking too much”.  We often discuss high blood pressure in the same vein as educating the person on healthy ways to handle stress.  In the high blood pressure example, we are trying to teach the person healthy coping strategies. Why are we so afraid to also see alcohol abuse in this way; that something has gone awry in the person’s coping mechanism? After all, alcohol is understood to act on the serotonin pathways in the brain. The link between low levels of serotonin and alcohol dependency has been well studied, and often one sees anxiety or depressive disorders running co-morbid with alcohol dependence (Lovinger, 1999). The alcohol becomes a means of self-medication.  Shifting our mindset that alcohol abuse is a “moral failing” to a “disease in the reward pathway of the brain” might be a start in helping us begin to be honest and talk about this disease for what it really is.

Educate yourself on the warning signs and risk factors:

Warning Signs: Risk Factors:
Increased tolerance for the substance (needs more of the substance over time) Availability of alcohol and tolerance in social group
Preoccupation with obtaining the substance Presence of other mental illnesses (like depression or anxiety)
Continued use after recognizing the problem Genetics/Family History
Problems with withdrawal when not using substance Social factors (unemployment, divorce, peer-use, other major life events)
Difficulty controlling use Sensitivity to the substance (physiologically less sensitive, have a higher alcohol tolerance)
Giving up important activities (occupational, family, etc)

Substance use disorders. (2013). Mental Health First Aid USA (1st ed.). Lutherville: Health Association of Maryland


Five year national study reveals: Addiction treatment neglected by u.s. medical system. (June , 26 2012). Retrieved from

Harvard School of Public Health. (2014). Obesity prevention source. Retrieved from

Lovinger, D. M. (1999). The role of serotonin in alcohols effects on the brain. Current Separations18(1), 23-28. Retrieved from

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration FARS data, 2010 – See more at:

Russo, J.E., & Schoemaker P.J. (2002). Winning Decisions. New York, NY: Doubleday