A CONVERSATION ABOUT PUNJABI ALCOHOLISM
Updated: Jan 21
Trigger Warning: This article discusses issues related to alcoholism and suicide.
The Indian state of Punjab, predominantly made up of the Sikh religion, sees roughly 550 farmers commit suicide every year[i]. This number continues to grow. The reason? The Green Revolution, which began in the 1950s, resulted in the use of untested and unsafe agricultural chemicals in farming processes. This contaminated the once so fertile soil, air and water of Punjab (ironic, seeing as ‘Punjab’ translates to ‘5 waters’). Some argue that this has contributed to rising health issues in the region, such as cancer[ii], heart disease, liver disease, hepatitis and asthma[iii]. Farmer exploitation, at the hand of India’s government and agricultural conglomerates combined with the issues of contamination, have resulted in reduced returns on crop yields, leading to insurmountable debt and has ultimately meant farmers are no longer able to fend for themselves, or their families. Tragically ,for many, the only way out is suicide. Farmer suicides in Punjab could be described as an epidemic that has gone unnoticed for many decades. Inextricably linked is another hidden epidemic. The silent epidemic. Alcoholism.
What does this have to do with cricket? Well, diminishing income from agricultural work is a large part of the reason why the Sikh Punjabi community, which makes up almost 13% of the British South Asian population[iv], immigrated to the U.K. An appreciation of the baggage that comes with this is imperative in understanding how a considerable portion of British South Asian youth could have been adversely impacted, particularly in their mindset, character, personality and their own mental health.
Thought to be one of the world’s largest consumers of alcohol[v], Punjab has an astonishing rate of addiction. Children in Punjab hooked on alcohol is three times the Indian national average (6 per cent)[vi]. An alarming 73.5% of Punjab’s youth are addicted to drugs[vii]. Opioid addiction is rife and often taken to muster through a hard day’s work in the field. Many Punjabi Sikh immigrants to the U.K., from the 1950s to today, have brought these issues with them. You only have to walk the streets of Southall, made of a large Sikh population, to witness first-hand the problems of alcoholism in the community.
The problem seems to be inherent within the culture, which celebrates the poison. Punjabi music often applauds the idea drinking copious amounts, being drunk, getting drunk, drinking while drunk and…getting even more…drunk! A BBC report from 2018, titled ‘The unspoken alcohol problem among UK Punjabis’ revealed that “27% of British Sikhs report having someone in their family with an alcohol problem.”[viii] I knew the figure would be high but this was surprising, even to me, a British Punjabi Sikh who is well aware of the issues.
In my post ‘A Conversation With Imran Qayyum’ I talked about the close-knit nature of the South Asian culture, and how this was something quite special. Something we count ourselves lucky for. It offers help and support in ways that are essential when growing up, but also in later stages of life through elderly care. However, this cultural intimacy can also mean it’s sometimes difficult to escape volatile environments. One can feel trapped. In the same conversation with Qayyum, I also mentioned Enmeshment Trauma. The trauma from an alcoholic parent can also impact in similar, if not worse, ways. A child can end up carrying this trauma with them. To school. To university. To work. To social events. All through life. There is clear research on how the adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) can develop trauma. Main symptoms include[ix]:
Higher risk of depression and other mental health issues
Over sensitivity to criticism
Uncomfortable with recognition or praise (as well as a constant seeking of praise)
Difficulty with emotions and an inability to express positive emotions
Physical health issues
A need for control
Hypervigilance as a self-protective coping mechanism, stemming from shame and pain
A propensity for drug and alcohol addiction problems
The impact of an alcoholic parent may be much more intricate than this, but I don’t think you need to be an expert to see how the above symptoms can affect success in a sporting, or even working, environment. In pressure situations, any of the above symptoms will cause a less than desirable outcome. Personal and professional relationships might suffer. Decision making may be impaired. When we consider British South Asian representation in English cricket, we must consider this as a factor.
Monty Panesar, one of just 2 Sikhs to have played cricket for England (now, there’s a stat in itself), has been open and honest about his relationship with alcohol and mental health problems[x]. Many have talked about the likes of Monty being key role models, for British South Asians. Monty having spoken publicly about his issues with alcohol and mental health will have been priceless, not only for Punjabi Sikhs, but the entire British South Asian community. It will have, hopefully, broken the stigma associated to mental health. The Punjabi Sikh community is a proud group of people. Alcohol and mental health issues are often brushed under the carpet for fear of social and societal judgement, which often acts as a huge barrier to the community seeking help. “But what will people think?” is too commonly heard. There are now a number of support groups and initiatives, specifically for Punjabi Sikhs, which I think goes to show the need for such services. Materials and collateral can also be accessed in Punjabi, which helps to bridge the gap of understanding for elders, who might have a poorer grasp of English.
Children will always learn from their parents. They will do as they see and not what they’re told. How and where do we break this cycle, especially when the baggage brought over from Punjab is being handed down from generation to generation? The worst game of pass the parcel, that I’ve ever played. Can sports coaches, teachers and employers be made more aware of such cultural issues and be a little more understanding, if made aware of these cultural issues? Whether that’s through mental health support, family support, or otherwise? I do wonder how many non-South Asian coaches are aware of alcoholism being prevalent amongst Punjabi Sikhs? I’d be willing to bet not many. Of course, we need more South Asian coaches in cricket, to connect with young South Asian talent and be role models. But, what if the impact of Punjabi Sikh alcoholism has contributed to a lack of coaches, in itself? Are Muslim coaches aware of the problems of alcoholism amongst Punjabi Sikhs and how to deal with these issues, especially as alcohol is strictly prohibited in Islam?
The British South Asian community splits into numerous different sub-cultures, each with their own unique identities. This is where things are further complicated and is one of the arguments for scrapping the use of the term “BAME.” To be unique is to be one of a kind. But to be one of a kind can sometimes be exclusionary. It’s these exclusionary practices that can result in a lack of cohesion amongst cultures, leading to alienisation. This is just one example of that.
If you have been affected by any of what you have read above, please see below for some helpful resources:
https://www.samaritans.org/ - Samaritans offer listening and support to people and communities in times of need. They give people ways to cope and the skills to be there for others, as well as encourage, promote and celebrate those moments of connection between people that can save lives.
https://www.mind.org.uk/ - Mind is a mental health charity who provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/ - Drinkaware provides independent alcohol advice, information and tools to help people make better choices about their drinking.
https://www.taraki.co.uk/ - Taraki work with Punjabi communities to improve access to mental health awareness, education, social supports, and research through culturally safe activities to better care for themselves and one-another.
https://sikhyourmind.com/ - Sikh Your Mind aims to increase awareness of mental health difficulties in the Sikh community.
https://asranow.ca/ - Asra Now is a Punjabi Alcohol Resource and acts as a starting point for Punjabi families who struggle with alcohol use and are seeking help for themselves or a loved one.
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[i] Toxification (available on Amazon Prime UK - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5251512/) [ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution#Health_impact [iii] Toxification (available on Amazon Prime UK - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5251512/) [iv] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11#:~:text=Of%20the%20other%20main%20religious,Buddhist%20(0.4%20per%20cent%20). [v] Toxification (available on Amazon Prime UK - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5251512/) [vi] https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/chandigarh/alcoholism-among-children-highest-in-punjab-finds-study-733333 [vii] Toxification (available on Amazon Prime UK - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5251512/) [viii]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43505784 [ix] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/addiction-and-recovery/201908/trauma-symptoms-adult-children-alcoholics [x] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/i-want-to-be-a-broadcaster-so-i-even-make-notes-before-ringing-phone-ins-365sdmxbw