Ending the Silence: Alcoholism Among Affluent Women

Driven by the pain of losing friends, Prue Meehan is raising awareness about the issue of alcoholism among affluent women, and working to remove the shame and stigma that prevents them from seeking treatment.

Peter and Prue Meehan: Photo courtesy of Triangle Community Foundation

Growing up in Connecticut, Prue Meehan saw first hand the particular problem of affluent women abusing alcohol. They would suffer alone. They didn't get the help they needed. And too often, the consequences were fatal.

"I've lost more than ten friends to liver failure," Meehan says. "They tend to have husbands who have high powered, high paying jobs and at some point their own lives get pushed aside."

Driven by the pain of losing friends, Meehan has dedicated herself to bringing the issue into the open and removing the shame and stigma that has prevented her friends from seeking treatment. She is the founder of The Women of Substance, an organization that raises awareness and advocates for programs that meet the specific needs of affluent women.

A trend of problem drinking among women was recently confirmed in a national study led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Binge drinking - defined as consuming more than four drinks a day for women and five for men on at least one occasion in the past 30 days – climbed 17.5 percent between 2005 and 2012 among women. Among men, rates of binge drinking increased 4.9 percent. The rates were even higher in Connecticut, where binge drinking among women rose nearly 21 percent, with the highest escalation in Litchfield County.

The increases pushed the rate of binge drinking in Connecticut to more than 13 percent among women and 25.4 percent among men in 2012, both higher than national averages.

Meehan grew up on Whitney Avenue in New Haven and attended the private all-girls Day School (which later merged with Hopkins School) and went on to Smith College. After moving to North Carolina with her husband, she earned a Master's Degree in counseling and had been working with youth before coming to realize the lack of help for women who would otherwise appear to have all the resources they would need.

While health professionals treat alcohol and drug abuse as chronic but treatable mental health conditions, Meehan said this approach can act as a barrier to treatment for affluent women because of the stigma associated with mental disorders. She emphasizes the need for early identification through screening by a primary care doctor.

"You want a woman to get treatment, but you want her to get the right treatment. It's not easy," she says.

Many affluent women don't receive help, Meehan says, because no one is mandating they go. They are less likely than individuals with low incomes to be involved in the court system, which is a predominant way that people with substance use problems enter programs.

Another issue is that many of the treatment programs marketed to the affluent don't have credentialed counselors and follow a formula that doesn't address the particular needs of women.

"It needs to be an individualized treatment," Meehan says.

Meehan's dedication to the issue of substance abuse and her affection for New Haven has led her to support the Apt Foundation through a donor advised fund she and her husband established at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. The Apt Foundation provides health and recovery services to people who live with addiction and/or mental illness.

For more information about substance abuse as a mental health issue, read The Community Foundation's issue brief.

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