Guest Column: Alcohol treatment programs see bump at start of new year

Tracy Swartz

Gyms aren’t the only places that see a membership spike after the holidays.

Alexian Brothers Health System, which offers addiction treatment programs in the Chicago area, saw 20 percent more calls about service options in December compared to November, said Carol Hartmann, business development director for Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health. Hartmann attributed the increase to health insurance benefits kicking in Jan. 1 for some people.

On the West Coast, the number of people enrolled in the program geared toward professionals at Promises Treatment Centers in Santa Monica has nearly doubled from 10 people enrolled in the program before the holidays to 19 people total, as of the first full week of January, said Dr. Gregory Skipper, director of professionals health services at Promises.

“We’re having a boom in our place census-wise,” Skipper said. “I believe the first of the year seems to be resolution time … People sort of re-examine” their habits, including alcohol.   

Government dietary guidelines define moderate alcohol intake as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Anything more than that may be a sign of alcohol dependency, though alcohol sensitivity varies among people and the number of drinks is not the only way to decide if someone is addicted to alcohol, experts say.

There are three criteria that help determine if someone has become dependent on alcohol ­— loss of control, physical adaptation to alcohol and an increase in consequences because of drinking, said Andrea King, professor and director of the Clinical Addictions Research Laboratory at the University of Chicago. The guidelines come from the manual of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, a group of more than 36,000 psychiatrists. 

Loss of control: Some people may find themselves drinking more or for a longer period of time than they intended, King said. These people may try to set parameters for their drinking and then go beyond these self-imposed limits. 

Physical adaptation: People who have become dependent on alcohol may notice their drinking has caused physical changes including an increase in tolerance. If they try to stop drinking completely, they may find themselves undergoing symptoms of withdrawal, including headaches, tremors and nausea, King said. 

Increase in consequences: Drinking may cause or exacerbate psychological or physical problems and yet people still keep drinking. 

“Alcohol addiction may not look the same from person A to person B but if you have two of these three (criteria), it’s much more likely that you do have an alcohol problem,” said King, who has studied the effects of alcohol in young binge drinkers.

At Promises, Skipper said he generally follows the addiction definition from the American Society of Addiction Medicine, which is similar to King’s definition.

The society, which represents more than 3,000 physicians dedicated to improving addiction treatment, defines addiction as a chronic disease characterized by the inability to limit drinking, impairment in control, cravings and a lack of realization that drinking is causing significant personal problems. Skipper said because there is no set amount of alcohol that defines alcohol dependence, it’s difficult for some people to realize they have a drinking problem.

“People get in denial, and that’s the big problem. Somewhere in there they know it is getting out of control,” Skipper said. “That’s a problem: Having people decide for themselves” what is too much. 

Tracy Swartz is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye publication.