The report, by academics from Sheffield Hallam University and ARC Research, funded by Alcohol Change UK, is calling for formal alcohol support services to support communities where individuals are less likely to seek formal help but more likely to turn to their community for support.
Researchers looked at the ‘community of belonging’ around drinking focusing on marginalised groups where it plays a part in the community either as a social glue or a source of stigma.
The team interviewed members of Polish communities, LGBTQ+ communities and South Asian communities across Yorkshire and Humberside.
Transitions into and out of communities played a key role in terms of drinking behaviour across all communities. Those transitions can be facilitated by alcohol and belonging can increase wellbeing but if drinking is not in moderation physical and mental health problems can result.
One key theme of the research is the role alcohol plays in terms of ‘fitting in’.
Peter Nelson, lead author of the research from Sheffield Hallam University, said: “Alcohol services face a dilemma of recognising the importance of social network support for recovery from alcohol related problems whilst at the same time acknowledging the impact of adverse drinking norms within that community.
“Belonging to a community and finding support and friendship within that community can often be more important than the alcohol that facilitates membership. But where pubs and clubs are the one safe place for the community to meet, drinking is what brings the community together.”
For the Polish community, drinking played a role in immigrant communities as a social and cultural glue binding them together.
Some of the LGBTQ+ participants described drinking behaviour worsening when coming out and dealing with feelings of loneliness, using alcohol to fit in and to make friends within the community: “It’s weird to say, but you know if you have no friends, but you want friends, you gel in to get friends. So that’s what I did, I gelled in, I fitted myself in to have a connection that I didn’t have elsewhere.”
Participants from the LGBTQ+ community also described how drinking helped them talk and manage past trauma: “issues with depression, suicidal feelings, that sort of thing and that's something that I’ve always had, not always, but for most of my drinking time had issues with but was never really able to talk about unless I was completely wasted.”
In the South Asian community, alcohol is seen as a taboo subject and participants described how their drinking behaviour changed when transitioning into young adulthood or moving to university: “It was pretty normal when I first started drinking at university, so I didn’t feel like I was different or anything. Everyone was drinking all the time, even people of South Asian, Muslim background.”
Members from all communities said they would be reluctant to turn to formal alcohol support services for help with problem drinking behaviour.
In the Polish community, drinking behaviour was described as normalised and accessing help was seen as something for people in a worse situation: “It was more like joke or person whose alcoholic in my imagination was person who lost everything and was homeless and had nothing to do.”
Within the LGBTQ+ community, participants said they were more likely to turn to friends within the community if they felt they had a problem with alcohol and were less likely to use formal services due to internalised shame or poor previous experiences of support services.
Because of alcohol being described as a taboo subject, South Asian participants explained how they would be less likely to seek help from services due to shame and fear of being judged or ‘found out’ by the South Asian community.
Although some people felt unable to speak to their family about drinking behaviour, the South Asian community was also an enabler to stopping drinking. Participants said that being around people who were not drinking and doing activities that did not involve drinking helped: “You feel more at home, just because you talk about other things other than drinking. You’re not trying to fit in and be someone else, you can just be you.”
Mark Leyshon, Research and Policy Manager at Alcohol Change UK said: “This fascinating new report highlights the importance of community for people seeking to reduce or stop their drinking. Clearly, some of us feel a certain unease in seeking support from mainstream treatment services, preferring instead to turn to members of our own community.
“It therefore seems there’s more work to be done to ensure that not only services become fully accessible and welcoming to people from all backgrounds, but also that we find new ways to upskill and empower members of particular communities who might be supporting the people around them.”
The report recommends that alcohol services in the UK target these communities, which may be more effective than individual interventions.
They also recommend that services provide knowledge and emotional support to members of communities who are helping a friend or family member with alcohol problems, as this can be emotionally and physically draining.
The report warns against generalised conclusions and applicability to all communities of belonging around alcohol given the diversity within each community and suggests research needs to be done with communities and service providers in specific localities to identify and shape interventions that would best meet community need.