Unspoken UK Punjabi alcohol problem

From BBC - April 3, 2018

For many British Punjabis, alcohol abuse is an open secret. Alcohol consumption is glamorised across different aspects of Punjabi culture and shame stops many seeking the help that they need.

Harjinder read her daughter Jaspreet one last bedtime story, then kissed her goodnight. She was exhausted after a long day, and drifted off next to her daughter. Her toddler son was already asleep in the next room.

The next thing she remembers is her husband yelling. He was drunk and furious that when he returned from the pub she was not in their marital bed. In a rage, he flipped the child's bed throwing his wife and daughter to the floor. Harjinder hit the radiator hard with Jaspreet landing on top of her.

Incidents like this were a regular feature of Jaspreet and her brother Hardeep's childhood. "It was heartbreaking," Jaspreet, says.

So when Harjinder found Hardeep, now aged 16, drinking whiskey in his room after an argument with his alcoholic dad, she was terrified that he was following in his father's footsteps.

There are around 430,000 Sikhs in the UK, making up a significant proportion of the British Punjabi population. Harjinder herself is Sikh and amongst her community her experience is not unique.

A new survey, commissioned by the BBC to investigate attitudes to alcohol among British Sikhs, found that 27% of British Sikhs report having someone in their family with an alcohol problem. It's a problem which is rarely talked about openly in the community.

Over 1,000 British Sikhs responded to the survey - find out more using this interactive tool:

Harjinder moved in with her husband's family after their arranged marriage - both common practices within Punjabi and wider South Asian communities. She was shocked to find out how much her newly acquired family's social life centred around the men's excessive drinking.

The family, along with young children, would go to a friend's house and would stay there until two or three o'clock in the morning waiting for the men, and she started to feel increasingly isolated.

Rav Sekhon, a British Punjabi psychotherapist who works with ethnic minority communities, says: "There is really strong pride and honour for the family name. They do not want anyone to perceive them as having something wrong with them or any form of weakness."

Sanjay Bhandari is from a Hindu Punjabi family, a partner at a multinational city firm in London and a recovering alcoholic. After his father died when he was 15, he says he started drinking and never really stopped.

By his mid 30s, he realised that he had not been a single day without a drink for over seven years, and he'd been dependent on alcohol for much longer. He says his Punjabi background played a big part in discouraging him from admitting he had a problem.

Sanjay, who has now been sober for 16 years, says he did not feel that he could admit he had a weakness, nor that he was feeling lonely and self-medicating with alcohol. He did not look to the Punjabi community for help, but eventually found Alcoholics Anonymous

"It would never have occurred to me to go to the community for help with drinking. It was almost the last place I would have gone."

When the first immigrants, who were mostly men, came to the UK from Punjab in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, many found themselves struggling to assimilate being in a new country, often working long hours to send money home to their families.


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