February 18, 2020

Prevention: communities are key

crowd at sunset

Harms from alcohol and other drugs impact not only individuals, but also their community. Consequently, efforts to prevent those harms can be more effective when the community is behind them.

No one understands a community like the people in it. Community members bring knowledge about the strengths, challenges and needs of their area – this knowledge can be the key to successful prevention efforts.

What does it mean to involve the community?

‘Community’ can be understood in several ways but is commonly described as a geographic space, like a local government area. Within that space, there are two main ways the community might be involved in a prevention initiative or program.

While both ways involve the active participation of community members, there is a difference between an initiative being led by a community and an initiative based in a community:

  • community led: driven by the community, which identifies an issue and mobilises to address that issue
  • community based: often driven by external people or organisations, which assist the community to identify issues and help guide action. Often project focused.

Depending on the issue and the community, one approach might be more appropriate or successful than the other.

Benefits of involving the community

Regardless of which approach is adopted, the active participation of the community in planning, design and implementation offers a variety of benefits.

When the community is involved, it can help to: 1, 2 3, 4

  • increase awareness of the issue
    • drive community readiness to address the issue
    • increase community members’ ability to advocate for programs and their community
  • ensure the program is relevant and what the community needs
  • create a sense of community ownership of the program
    • increase engagement with the program by community members
  • upskill community members in understanding public health and prevention approaches.

In high risk and marginalised communities, in particular, community involvement can be the key to effective prevention efforts.5-8

The speed of community-led change can sometimes feel slow because it takes time to mobilise people, gather the resources required and sustain momentum. However, the wide-ranging benefits are worth it and can include increased community connectedness and improved health and social outcomes.

Barriers to involving the community

In order to successfully involve the community, potential barriers should be identified and minimised.

Actively engaging community members can be hard for a range of reasons including:

  • a lack of time to commit to a new project
  • competing responsibilities, such as care-giving, balancing multiple jobs and maintaining a social life
  • different community priorities or areas of interest
  • different levels of physical or cognitive ability
  • not all community members being capable of participation.

This can mean that community representation is weighted towards those who have not only an interest in the issue but can also make the time, and don’t have physical or mental barriers to engagement.

This should be taken into consideration when community consultation and engagement is planned so that it is as inclusive as possible.

While prevention can be effective when delivered from the ‘bottom-up’, it cannot be the only measure to tackle alcohol and other drug harms. Communities also need support to tackle the political, economic and cultural factors that have contributed to the harm in the first place.9

Community involvement is an important measure

There are many factors that influence alcohol and other drug harms experienced by individuals and communities.

The importance of any factor will be different, depending on the community - which is why it’s critical that members of that community are actively involved in prevention to bring a local understanding.

It is also important to recognise that community level change is most likely to be effective when there is also policy and legal change to support it.

Community-led and community-based prevention activities are not a single solution - they are an important part of a range of measures to prevent alcohol and other drug harms in Australian communities.

  1. Blagg H, Bluett-Boyd N, Williams N. Innovative models in addressing violence against Indigenous women: State of knowledge paper. Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Limited; 2015.
  2. Fagan A, Hanson K, Hawkins J, Arthur M. Implementing effective community-based prevention programs in the Community Youth Development Study. 2008(6).
  3. Stocking E, Bartlem K, Hall A, Hodder R, Gilligan C, Wiggers J, et al. Whole-of-community interventions to reduce population-level harms arising from alcohol and other drug use: a systematic review and meta-analysis. 2018;113.
  4. Fagan A, Hawkins D, Catalano R. Engaging Communties to Prevent Underage Drinking 2011;34(2).
  5. Wise M, Angus S, Harris E, Parker S. Scoping Study of Health Promotion Tools for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Melbourne Lowitja Institute; 2012.
  6. Swainston K, Summerbell C. The effectiveness of community enagement approches and methods for health promotion intervention. S. Rapid Review Phase 3 (Including Consideration of Additional Evidence from Stakeholders). NICE National Collaborating Center 2003.
  7. Shakeshaft A. DC, Petrie D., Breen C., Havard A., Abudeen A. The effectiveness of community action in reducing risky alcohol consumption and harm: a cluster randomised controlled trial,. PLoS Med 2014: 11:. 2014.
  8. Anderson L, Adeney K, Shinn C, Safranek S, Buckner-Brown J, Krause K. Community coalition-driven interventions to reduce health disparities among racial and ethnic minority populations. 2015(6).
  9. The Wisdom of Prevention; Long-term planning, upstream investment and early action to prevent harm. NEF; 2012.

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