In Australia, high-risk drinking and alcohol use disorders are considered a concerning public health issue. People are just not getting the help and support they need.
It can be hard to admit having an unhealthy relationship with alcohol to ourselves, let alone to our social groups who may have a strong focus on drinking every time they get together. People need a space where a community can help them change and provide support and guidance when their partners, friends or families might not be able to.
Closing the gap
Through our research and experience with Hello Sunday Morning over the last eight years, we have found a significant gap exists in alcohol treatment. Currently, 40 million people globally and 360,000 Australians who want alcohol treatment fall outside the capacity of the health system.
People who are drinking at risky levels are not seeking the help they need; this is due to a number of things, such as:
Long waiting lists and limited services
Stigmatisation in our culture
High cost of treatment
Why are online communities helpful?
Our latest research shows getting involved in an online forum can support long-term behaviour change in individuals wishing to change the way they drink. This is because it is rare and extremely hard for someone who is looking at quitting or cutting back their alcohol consumption to go through it alone.
The journey of change is challenging and for most people, it is not as easy as just ‘not drinking’. People have relapses and setbacks, lose motivation or use alcohol to cope with something difficult that arises – the list goes on. It is vital to have at least one person who you can turn to for non-judgemental support when you need it and this is exactly what online forums can provide.
They can also hold a safe space which is anonymous (if you don’t want to announce to the world that you’re no longer drinking), accessible (you can chat to people going through a similar change at anytime), and are more affordable treatment options.
Community and connection – a basic human need
Engagement with the online community and peer support is a key ingredient in the successful behaviour change of Hello Sunday Morning and Daybreak members.
Peer-to-peer communities (people posting to a group of people in the same online space) are described as one of the most ‘transformational features of the internet’.
These online spaces allow people with multiple barriers (living in a remote areas, difficult working hours etc) to connect and create supportive communities. Many people who have difficult relationships with alcohol are often also feeling isolated in their lives – being able to create meaningful connections with people who are working towards the same goals as them can be incredibly powerful. Peer support can often be just as effective, or more so, than professional support, as it provides a social outlet as well as a space to grow therapeutically.
Sharing where you’re at
Narrative expression, or being able to post and write how you’re feeling or whether you need help, has demonstrated psychological benefits for people because it allows reflection, connection, and meaning-making.
One of the key processes in narrating our experiences is ‘externalising’, which is the process of getting thoughts out and into words, and finding ways of communicating how we’re feeling; this can be hugely important in bringing us to a sense of clarity and understanding.
When we looked at analytics of blog posts on our Hello Sunday Morning legacy platform, we saw that members typically begin with descriptions of their drinking practices. Often, this changes over time to reflect their efforts and their aspirations, turning in a more positive direction.
Being part of a supportive web-based community, as well as having the opportunity to reflect on past experiences, may help give people the resources needed to create lasting behaviour change.
People helping people
We also found online community members shifted from being self-focused to reflecting on the role of alcohol in society and developing a desire to support others.
This makes a lot of sense – part of the recovery process can be going from a person who does not have much knowledge or experience, to someone who has a lot of knowledge that they can use to support others.
Within the Daybreak community, we have members who have been active for several months, and who have moved from ‘newbies’ to more established and recognised people in the community. Just like in a sporting team, workplace or small town, the longer we stay in the group the stronger our connections become. Over time, we tend to shift our focus from ourselves and our own needs, and start to consider the needs of the community and its members.