Addiction stigma is never OK
By Nick Adams
Published Aug. 6, 2019
Last week I shared the steps I took when I determined that my substance use was out of control. I sought out help through FourCAST. For every person, like myself, who does reach out for help, there are countless who never make it that far. A big reason for this is the stigma involved in admitting that you have a problem. Stigma refers to negative ways in which society views people with addiction and mental health problems. In more general terms, it is the disapproval of a person because they are different from someone else.
Many who are suffering under the weight of the unending cycles of harmful substance use don’t reach out for help because they fear how they will be perceived by others. When the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) asked those with substance use problems what the experience of stigma was like for them, they replied that they felt judged and labelled. They felt that others thought they should be ashamed of themselves and embarrassed by their behaviour. CAMH also said that certain groups of people are even more prone to negative societal attitudes. Those groups include people who use injection drugs, women with children, those who are on social assistance and Indigenous peoples.
In our culture today we view racism as unacceptable, gender equality as a given, and homophobia as ignorant. How are we doing when it comes to stigma around substance use and the people that use certain substances? Alcohol consumption has been mainstream and widely accepted for many years. Someone drinking a beer at a sporting event or in a restaurant would not register on most people’s radar, but an unwashed person sitting on a street corner drinking that same beer is somehow different.
Cannabis is now legal in Canada and so we must be prepared to smell that pungent aroma in a variety of settings that we wouldn’t have previously been exposed to. I am not sure how many men in three-piece suits we would see on Bay Street in Toronto having a quick puff after work, but it would definitely be viewed differently than three 19-year-olds passing a joint in the park. In a party setting there is still the idea that using cocaine should be done in a private setting, because what would everyone think if it was out on the table like a martini glass?
These are all examples of stigma. Stigma can create barriers for people struggling with their substance use. For instance, research has shown stigma to be a barrier to treatment-seeking behaviours among individuals with addiction. Research also shows that people who have felt discriminated against are more likely to report poorer health outcomes. In order to help eliminate stigma, all substances must be viewed as equal, and all those who use as equals. The one who is struggling with their substance use shouldn’t be further marginalized, but instead encouraged to talk openly about their use without fear of being judged.
I was instrumental in bringing an Ontario Addiction Treatment Centre to Haliburton five years ago. At the time, I saw that people who lived in our community had to leave the area just to see a doctor to monitor their methadone program.
Instead of making a judgment about whether or not I deemed methadone to be a good alternative to other opioids, I helped connect people with the service that they needed. However, not all people in the community felt that this was the best solution. Instead of getting informed about the issue, learning about the purpose of a methadone program, and realizing that opioid addiction can happen to anyone, some people started to look down on the people receiving treatment through the clinic.
Some of the statements that I have heard from people in the community about those using methadone as a way to get off street drugs were that these people are “meth-heads,” “lazy,” “welfare bums.” When used in other contexts, these statements would be viewed as offensive, but when it comes to talking about people with substance use issues, these words can seem commonplace. Is it fair to reduce a person’s worth, abilities and resources to one negative label?
Here is one for you. There is a guy who is married and has three kids, owns his own home, two cars in the driveway, and works as a youth pastor, of all things. So, you would think he must be of good character. This guy gets up every day and goes to work and crushes up pills and snorts them right off his desk. Then, sometime after lunch he will go out and smoke some cannabis before heading home and drinking four or five double vodkas before laying his head down for the night. His last thought at night is about crushing pills in the morning and when he wakes in the morning it is his first thought. He hides all of this from everyone closest to him because he is terrified what would happen if his family and friends, his employer, his church family would do if they knew what he was doing. The cycle continues for months until everything is so far out of control that the only answer is to quit his job.
The amount of guilt and shame that he feels pushes him to the brink of suicide. Thankfully he was able to admit he had a problem and got help, despite the many hurdles and the stigma.
That guy was me.
Next week I will talk about a few ways in which we can all begin to view those who are suffering from substance use issues in a new light. It is my hope that we can begin to reduce stigma and increase compassion and understanding for those living in this community. We are in need of a kindness revolution.
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @HKLNDrugStrat and Facebook @HKLNDrugStrategy.
Nick Adams is the Media and Communications Worker for the Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, Northumberland Drug Strategy. Through a series of weekly columns, Nick will discuss how the Drug Strategy is reducing the harms and stigma around substance use in our communities and will offer a unique perspective to the various weekly topics by sharing his own personal experience.