Belonging – a help and hindrance to managing your drinking?

Mark Leyshon | November 2023 | 9 minutes

Our Research and Policy Manager delves into the findings of our New Horizons projects and finds a common thread through all of them – the concept of belonging.

We’re delighted to publish the final reports from the four projects funded via our flagship New Horizons programme.

The key focus of the New Horizons programme was exploring how people’s experience of alcohol harm is affected by their membership of, identification with, or exclusion from, groups and communities.

We funded four projects:

Each of the projects had distinct findings; but all four found a common theme in the concept of belonging. In their own way, all of them raised the same important question: is belonging to a community a help or hindrance when it comes to managing your alcohol consumption? The answer is that it can be both.

By 'community', we mean any unit of people who share certain attributes or connections: things like geographic location, ethnicity, culture, values, religion, gender, and sexuality. Of course, people can and do belong to multiple communities, and move or 'transition' between them: anything from relocating to a new part of the country, 'coming out' as a different sexuality or gender, becoming a student, or finding a faith.

Alcohol plays a role in many communities, and participants in the projects frequently mentioned a need or expectation to drink in order to "fit in", either within their original community or when joining another one. Understandably, this wasn’t always a positive experience. South Asian participants in one project, for example, described how they did not drink alcohol for their own enjoyment but, instead, to feel accepted in a multi-ethnic social group.

On the other hand, they found that drinking to fit in with a new community left them isolated and criticised in their original community. South Asian women in particular felt stigmatised by cultural expectations about appropriate behaviour for women and the belief that their behaviour would bring shame to their family and ethnic community.

But whilst alcohol use can be problematic within communities, it can also reinforce a sense of belonging. For Polish participants in one study, drinking with others was seen as a key aspect of Polish identity, a “comfort” and a “social glue” binding the Polish community in the UK together. Similarly, “towpath drinking” was perceived to be an important part of belonging to the Boater community.

Indeed, the importance of belonging was in some cases greater than the alcohol itself – drinking together being sometimes simply a means to stay connected with others, and consequently shaping their experience of belonging.

The embeddedness of drinking within a particular community, however, may make it harder not to drink or to moderate consumption, and mean it’s more difficult to recognise when drinking behaviour has become problematic.

For example, LGBTQ+ people seeking to connect and belong often found that this happened mostly via pubs and bars that were welcoming to their community, possibly exacerbating any difficulties they were already having with alcohol. At our recent seminar exploring alcohol use among LGBTQ+ people, delegates frequently highlighted a dearth of sober spaces for socialising and connecting.

All four projects found a hesitancy amongst participants to access support from mainstream alcohol treatment services and other healthcare services. People who had engaged with mental health services, for example, reported concerns about how any information they disclosed would be managed and shared, particularly when other agencies, such as social services, were involved. Some were afraid that other people from their community would “find out” about their drinking habits and that this would bring difficulties for them.

There was demand for support services tailored to particular communities, but these were few-and-far-between in reality. The “Keep it to yourself” study describes a vicious circle whereby South Asian women’s drinking was largely hidden, meaning that the demand for bespoke services was also hidden; and without such services being provided, secrecy and shame around drinking continued.

For some people, there were very practical barriers to support: the nomadic existence of Boaters meant that, without a fixed abode, registering with a GP and accessing treatment was very difficult.

When people did seek help, it was often from within their own communities rather than from external agencies. Participants from the Polish and LGBTQ+ communities saw treatment services as “not for them”, preferring instead to reach out to friends within their community. Participants in the South Asian community talked about seeking help from their family and the local mosque.

Conversely, in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, there was a feeling that people with alcohol problems would feel too much shame to reach out to their own community, for fear of being perceived as “weak”.

The researchers on all four projects concluded that there was a real need for alcohol treatment services to be culturally literate, sensitive to gender and sexuality, and located discretely in communities.

Equally, services need to focus not only on supporting individuals experiencing difficulties with alcohol, but also on supporting and upskilling members of particular communities who are supporting the people around them.

An approach like this would recognise the reluctance of some individuals to engage with mainstream services; and acknowledge that they may have a valuable support resource to hand in the form of their own community. Those same feelings of belonging in which some people’s drinking habits are entangled could also be channelled as a means of alcohol harm reduction.

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