Breaking Down Stigma Around Addiction

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As Canada’s largest national provider of care for substance use disorder and behavioural addiction, challenging stigma and false assumptions about drug use, and people who use drugs, is an important part of what we do. 

As with any form of mental health issue, society is quick to judge people struggling with addiction based on myth and misinformation. Addiction makes them feel uncomfortable because they don’t understand it, which makes it harder to respond with compassion. Unfortunately, for many people, this stigma piles on top of other all too common discrimination based on housing status, income level, race, gender identity and sexuality.  

The end result is that people don’t reach out for help because they’re afraid of the judgement they’ll face and, for people who use drugs, isolation can be deadly. 

The hidden dangers of judgement 

Research shows that people who use drugs don’t just face judgement from their own social circles or society at large: they also encounter stigma within the health care system. Many doctors don’t want to take on patients with opioid use disorder, which is partly why so many of the people we serve don’t have a family physician. Not having access to primary care can be a major risk for anyone—especially someone who’s health and well-being are precarious due to homelessness, poverty and increased risks that come with drug use. 

If you thought you’d be told no when you reached out for help, would you still do it? 

Stigma is sneaky. It doesn’t have to be obvious. It can be as subtle as a label applied to a person (like “junkie” or “addict”) that takes away their humanity, or a passing judgmental comment that people with addiction are somehow “sketchy” or not “normal”.  

The reality is that people living with addiction are as diverse as any other population. They come from different backgrounds, live different types of lives and all have their own unique story that led them to begin using substances or engaging in harmful behaviours. Often, but not always, addiction is the result of traumatic experiences or deep pain. It’s a disease, not a personality trait.  

When we see the real people underneath the addiction, not just the behaviour, stigma begins to fall away. 

How to break down stigma and be an ally 

There are small things you can do to challenge hurtful assumptions and misinformation about addiction, and be an ally for people who are living with it, whether or not they’re in recovery. It’s important to note that sobriety isn’t the goal for everyone. Many people in recovery just want to use their substance of choice safely, not quit entirely. This is an important distinction that is often overlooked when people talk about addiction. 

Here are three simple things you can to do be an ally for people with addiction. 

1. Watch your language

Avoid using words that reinforce negative stereotypes around addiction and create labels that take away from the person underneath. And correct others when you hear them being used. 

The most common words to avoid are: 

  • Addict 
  • Druggie 
  • Junkie 
  • Drunk 
  • User 

These words put the focus on the addiction, rather than the person. 

Instead, say: 

  • Person with/experiencing addiction 
  • Person who uses drugs 

It’s a small change, but makes all the difference to the person on the receiving end of the words. 

Learn more about stigma

2. Learn the facts

Stigma comes from lack of education on the truth. There are many trustworthy sources of information on addiction and substance use disorder. Here are a few to get you started: 

Download the fact sheet

3. Show you care

If you suspect someone you know is experiencing addiction, reach out and let them know it’s safe to talk to you about it. One conversation can save a life. 

Also, don’t make assumptions about their situation, or what they need. Ask questions and listen before offering advice or guidance. It’s a small shift that can make a big difference. 

Most importantly, let them know that you’re not judging them, and that you’re a friendly face who wants to help. 

If they do want help, point them toward local resources, like our treatment centres that offer same-day access to care, 365 days a year. 

Whether you need help yourself, or are concerned about someone else, we’re with you all the way.