Co-production in alcohol research: what can we learn?

While alcohol harms can occur across society, many of those most profoundly affected are also the most vulnerable and hard to reach individuals.

As a new study by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University shows, the role of alcohol in the lives of homeless drinkers can be very damaging – but it is also very complex. Homelessness can be barrier to recovery: something acknowledged in a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice. Equally, problem drinking can be both a cause and a consequence of homelessness – but when it is a cause, it is rarely the sole reason why an individual finds themselves ‘on the streets’.

For those seeking to reduce the harms that alcohol can cause in these circumstances, it is essential to understand the nature of the problem. However, this poses a real challenge: how can we best understand the perspectives of people who are often marginalised, experiencing considerable personal difficulties, and lacking the means to access mainstream support and services?

The researchers at Liverpool John Moores University used Photovoice to help drinkers describe their own experiences and feelings through a combination of words and images. Through this co-produced approach, the research team were able to explore the complex and difficult processes that linked alcohol use to homelessness. They found that these often involved adverse life events, low levels of social or family support, and the use of alcohol to cope with trauma. Promoting and developing support networks was, by contrast, often key to recovery.

Photovoice is just one of a number of co-production methods increasingly being explored by researchers working in the substance-use field, all of which place an emphasis on breaking down the distinction between those doing research and those whom research is intended to benefit. While research can – and should – take many forms, we feel everyone in the alcohol field has something to learn from these approaches.

That is why we have made co-production the focus of our annual conference this year. We’ve have been fortunate in being able to bring together a large number of innovative projects from across the UK, all of which can tell us more about the benefits (and the challenges) of their work.

We see our conference as an opportunity for everyone with an interest in alcohol research to learn something new – even if their own work doesn’t involve public involvement. We look forward to seeing many of our colleagues at the conference, and joining them in collectively, and creatively, moving these approaches forward