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Stateside Podcast: An increase in alcohol use disorder

Austin Johnson posed in front of a green ivy covered wall.
Rachel Ishikawa
Michigan Radio
Austin Johnson is approaching two years of sobriety. He gets treatment at a the University of Michigan's Michigan Alcohol Improvement Network.

Austin Johnson celebrated the end of the work day like many people do: with a drink. But what began as a few-days-a-week habit slowly morphed into something more sinister – and hard to control. One drink every night turned into three. Every night turned into every afternoon, and eventually, every hour.

For almost ten years, Johnson’s alcohol addiction defined each waking moment of his life. And an ordinary social schedule – post-work bartime, bowling with a few friends, or golfing on the weekends – only fueled the problem: one that took him years to realize he even had. But after experiencing debilitating pain and vomiting blood, Johnson came face-to-face with his addiction during a month-long hospital stay, and he began the long path toward sobriety.

“I stopped doing the whole matchbox cars and Legos – I used to be big into those,” Johnson said. “I stopped…building things for myself; building stuff around my house. I let my house go…I was just like, ‘oh, just sit here and watch TV, drink.’”

Dr. Anne Fernandez and Dr. Scott Winder are two of the people behind the Michigan Alcohol Improvement Network.
Courtesy of Anne Fernandez and Scott Winder
Dr. Scott Winder and Dr. Anne Fernandez are two of the people behind the Michigan Alcohol Improvement Network.

Johnson is a far cry from the archetype we usually associate with alcohol use disorder. He’s a young man – now only 33 – and he never had encounters with the law for things like DUIs or disorderly conduct. He held a job. And for much of the time he struggled with alcohol addiction, he led the same kind of social life with social drinking that so many others do.

But doctors say that people like Johnson are quickly becoming a more typical patient admitted for alcohol-related health issues. Though alcohol-related cases have been climbing for years – with a peak during the pandemic – a report found that the problem is worse than previously thought. The paper, using data from the Henry Ford Health System, found that the number of alcohol-related liver disease admissions increased by 50% in 2020. For alcohol-related hepatitis, the increase was 66%.

“[W]e've seen increases in heavy drinking in young people through older adults,” said Dr. Anne Fernandez, an associate professor of psychiatry at University of Michigan’s Addiction Center. “We've seen increases in alcohol use disorder diagnosis, which is the term some people think of [as] alcoholism or alcohol dependence… And when alcohol use increases, damage to liver and other organs also increases.”

The University of Michigan clinic where Dr. Fernandez works is trying a new approach to treating patients with alcohol-related liver disease. The program is called the Michigan Alcohol Improvement Network, and part of treating the community-level problem means educating folks about how to recognize harmful yet socially accepted drinking practices.

“[P]atients like [Austin Johnson] are more and more common, probably because… our culture encourages or normalizes high levels of alcohol consumption,” Dr. G. Scott Winder told Stateside. He’s a clinical associate professor with the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. “[P]eople may just not understand how much they're drinking and may not have any way to gauge or tether their use to any statistical norms. So it can get out of control very quickly.”

Hear more about the rise in alcohol-related health issues, plus more of Austin Johnson’s story, on this episode of Stateside.

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Ellie Katz joined the Stateside team as an intern in September 2022.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.