South Asian AA Welcomes Community in New Jersey

By Kelly Burch 12/22/17

South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous offers resources and services in an environment that is comfortable and culturally sensitive.

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Twelve-step meetings are typically filled with food and hot drinks, but at one New Jersey fellowship meeting you’re more likely to find participants sipping chai than coffee. That’s because the group specifically targets South Asians who are struggling with alcoholism, a demographic that often faces cultural barriers to admitting a problem and accessing treatment. 

“There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings, and I felt something had to be done by developing the tools for South Asian AA meetings and also put a lot of effort to educate the community,” Vasudev Makhija, who founded South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous in 2015, told NBC News

According to SAMHSA, only 3% of Asian Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder, compared with 5.6% of the general population. However, Makhija believes that number is underreported due to language barriers and a cultural hesitation to talk about the problem. 

Whether that rate is correct or low, officials say that Asian Americans with alcohol use disorder often go without treatment. 

“While Asian Americans have the lowest prevalence of alcohol use disorders (3.0% compared to around 6.0% overall) they are the least likely to get help,” a spokesperson from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) told NBC.

A key to helping people connect with needed services is to offer them an environment that is comfortable and culturally sensitive, which Makhija aims to create in his meetings. 

“When we referred patients to AA meetings to take advantage, the South Asian patients often would say they are not comfortable because they don’t fit in the mainstream AA meetings,” Makhija said.

Groups like those provide an important service, said Dr. Timothy Fong, professor of psychiatry and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. Fong’s research has shown that Asian Americans are often reluctant to ask for help with substance use disorder, which can exacerbate the problem. 

“The rates and prevalence of addictive disorders among [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] is lower than non-Asian American populations whether it’s alcohol, cocaine [use], meth, cannabis, but it’s not zero—that’s the key,” he said. 

Makhija hopes that meetings of South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous will help people in his community feel more at ease talking about substance use and abuse, especially within their unique culture. 

“Going to a meeting which has people from the same communities, same ethnic background—South Asian background, it seems to be for them easier to connect with others who are South Asian,” he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.