Help End the Overdose Crisis: 7 Ways to Reduce Stigma

Help End the Overdose Crisis: 7 Ways to Reduce Stigma

It was on April 14, 2016, when Dr Perry Kendall, BC’s Provincial Health officer at the time, declared a public health emergency in response to a significant increase in drug-related overdoses and deaths.

Yet, here we are, nearly five years later, and sadly, things have only gotten worse.

According to the BC Coroner Services’ latest report, 2020 was a record-breaking year in lives lost to the overdose crisis. The report states that in 2020 alone, 1716 people died from an illicit drug overdose in BC, a 74% increase over the number of deaths in 2019.

BC Coroner Services’ Report on illicit drug overdose (2020)

To put it in perspective, about 4.7 people in BC died from an overdose each day in 2020, two deaths a day higher than in 2019.

We think it’s a good time to talk about stigma again.

Why? Because stigma kills. And because we as individuals and a society can stop it.

Let’s take a moment together to revisit what stigma is, what part it plays in the overdose crisis, and what we can do about it.

What is stigma?

Stigma is defined as, “an attribute or quality which significantly discredits an individual in the eyes of others.”

Further, to help people get familiar with substance use, the overdose crisis, and stigma, we collaborated with Toward the Heart to produce FAQ resources. We invite you to take some time to check those out and share them with everyone you know.

What part does stigma play in the overdose crisis?

“Drug user”

These are commonly-used words you’ve probably heard (or maybe even used) to describe or refer to a person who uses substances; yet, these words shine a negative light on people by stirring up inaccurate images that dehumanize people. Consequently, this can lead to a belief that people who use drugs are unworthy of help.

Demeaning words, like those above, often cause shame that leads to hiding substance use from loved ones and not seeking out help or accessing healthcare.

Combine the negative effects of the stigma already present in our society, with the presence of COVID-19, and it’s a recipe for overdose. Here’s how…

The pandemic is not only causing more people to use drugs alone, but it’s also accelerating the circulation of the toxic illicit drug supply, as business and border closures, along with physical distancing directives, for example, are causing a decrease or change in the availability of different drugs.

Increased prices, or prices remaining the same, but “cut” with more dangerous drugs like fentanyl, are making street drugs more dangerous and deadly than ever.

The existence of COVID-19 has also initiated a reduction to services like supervised consumption sites (SCS) and overdose prevention sites (OPS), so people who rely on a clean and safe place to consume drugs are finding sites temporarily closed or operating at reduced capacity to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Plus, with all eyes on COVID-19, fewer people are aware of our other public health emergency, the overdose crisis, as it’s garnered far less media attention than the virus has. Nevertheless, as the days pass, members of our community, our brothers, sisters, and friends, are dying every day.

What can we do about it?

We all have a role to play in reducing stigma and helping end the overdose crisis. Here are seven ways you can Activate Health by taking action starting today:

  • Change the way you view people who use substances. With negative images often circulating in the news, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that all substance users are homeless or jobless. Remember that it’s not unlikely that, knowingly or not, you have neighbours, friends, and family who use substances.
  • Pay attention to the words you use to talk about people who use substances. Words matter. Learn more by watching our video below.
Words matter video
  • Choose to use language that enhances personhood.Personhood provides information about an individual’s membership in society. Membership in society brings with it a sense of personal value, belonging and inclusion as a part of the human family.”
  • Learn how harm reduction saves lives. Harm reduction is rooted in respect and dignity. It starts with compassion, and eliminating the stigma of substance use is the first step. Learn more about harm reduction at Toward the Heart, the BC Centre for Disease Control’s main harm reduction website.
  • Familiarize yourself with the important role peers play in the overdose crisis. We are proud to have funded Compassion, Inclusion, and Engagement (CIE), a partnership between the First Nations Health Authority and the BCCDC. Through CIE, peers (people with lived/living experience of substance use) provide overdose prevention and harm reduction services, and stigma elimination in various communities in BC.
Is Safe Supply a Viable Option to the Overdose Crisis? | Guy Felicella | TEDxBearCreekPark
  • Bring to light the overdose crisis with your family and friends. Ask friends and family if they’re aware of the overdose crisis. Share what you know, what you’ve learned, and what has shifted your mindset about people who use substances. For FAQs, videos, and more to share with others, visit our Toxic Drug Poisoning Crisis Resource page.

The stark reality is, the overdose crisis is killing members of our community every day, but just as we have the power to do our part to help stop the spread of COVID-19, we too have the power to eliminate stigma, save lives, and help put an end to this other public health emergency once and for all.

Your actions can and will make a difference, and by more people taking action on one or all of the above, we can Activate Health together.

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