What is Stigma?
Stigma takes the form of negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours towards a group of people because of their situation in life. This looks like labelling, stereotyping or discrimination. Stigma is most apparent in the language people use, especially when it comes to people who use substances. Stigma isolates people who use substances or have substance use disorders. It is also one of the biggest barriers to recovery for people dealing with substance use disorder.
It is important to remember that addiction is not a choice, but a treatable medical condition. Stigma comes from fear or misunderstanding around substance use. To overcome stigma towards people who use substances, it is essential to know the different types of stigmas related to substance use, how stigma affects individuals as well as their families and friends, and how to change the language we use when talking to or about people who use substances.
What are the different types of Stigmas related to Substance Use?
How substance use stigma inflicts harm on people
- If someone fears the judgement and/or possibility of getting in trouble with work, loved ones, or the law, they may hide their use and/or use alone,
- It can create feelings of shame and hopelessness,
- Family, friends, and community members may have limited understanding, which may strain relationships,
- It can lead to prejudice and discrimination,
- It can impact an individual’s ability to find and/or keep housing,
- It can impact an individual’s ability to find and/or secure employment,
- Judgement surrounding how a person might present themselves,
- It can prevent community members from assisting in emergency situations,
- It may result in a lower quality of care from the healthcare system and difficulty accessing services, which can be detrimental to one's health.
What is Recovery?
Recovery is a process that is individualized, has no set timeframe, and is not always linear. During recovery, individuals commit themselves to working on improving their physical, psychological, and social health. For some, this may involve using substances more safely (i.e., harm reduction). Others might utilize outside assistance, such as counselling, treatment facilities, outpatient programs, withdrawal/detox centres, and more.
Talking about Substance Use: Why Do Words Matter?
Sometimes the words we use to describe substance use can unintentionally contribute to negative attitudes and stereotypes that can be hurtful or negatively affect those who use substances and their families. These words shape opinions, create negative stereotypes, influence how people are treated, and can stop people from getting the help they need.
Try to use neutral words when talking about substance use. Language is a powerful tool in our community.
Normalizing the conversation:
Normalizing the conversation about substance use is a valuable tool to help address stigma. Some ways in which we can normalize the conversations include:
- Having conversations about overdose issues, drug policy, and substance use disorders with our family, friends, and others we might socialize with
- When we are having these conversations, try and remove the judgement and biases we might hold. Having an open mind when discussing these topics is important; everyone has different life experiences that influence their opinions and decisions
- Changing the language we use, as appropriate terms help to dismantle the stereotypes involved in stigmatization
Label Me Person Anti-Stigma Campaign
Working to normalize the conversation within Windsor-Essex is the campaign, Label Me Person. Through the art of storytelling, People With Lived/Living Experiences share their challenges with substances/the opioid crisis and educate the community about how each of us can play a role in ending the opioid crisis and the stigma that surrounds use. Label Me Person encourages us to reflect on the “language we use as these words shape opinions, create negative stereotypes, influence how people are treated and can stop people from getting support.”
Ending the Stigma around Substance Use
Stigma can impact our individual encounters, as well as society behaviours towards communities in general. In order to make change, both individuals and the community as a whole need to come together to make it happen. Ending the stigma that surrounds substance use requires education and making small, but effective, changes in our day-to-day lives. Some things we can start doing may look like:
- Becoming aware of how we think and talk about substance use disorders
- Reflecting as to how we ourselves contribute and reinforce our biases and stigma
- Recognizing how media and advertising is not only portraying, but influencing our beliefs and behaviours
- Changing how we talk and think about substance use disorders
- Encouraging those around us to use appropriate language
- Utilizing person-first language such as “person who uses substances”
- Challenge other people's biases and educate them about the issue. This helps to normalize the conversation regarding substance use
- Obtain training for Naloxone and carry it with you, as it could save someone's life
- Remember that having a substance use disorder does not define someone or their identity. There is much more to a person than just their substance use disorder; person first language is essential
- Think about how we view recovery and how it looks different for everyone. It is not a linear process
- Increase our compassion and empathy regarding those who use and/or have a substance use disorder
Government of Canada. (2022). Stigma around drug use. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/opioids/stigma.html
Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. (2023). The pain of stigma: Recognizing stigma and its impacts. Retrieved from https://www.ccsa.ca/module/stigma-learning-module-en/#/
Government of Canada. (2022). About substance use. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/about-substance-use.html