With the growing number of overdoses and deaths caused by opioids, Canada is experiencing a national public health crisis. Even though there are resources available for opioid addiction, stigma prevents many people from getting the help and care they need.
Let’s take a look at the types of stigmas faced by those with opioid addiction, how it can negatively impact their recovery, and what you can do to help.
What is stigma?
Stigmas are negative attitudes and beliefs about a group of people due to their circumstances. Examples of stigma include discrimination, judgement, labelling, isolation and even something as common as stereotyping. People with opioid addiction often face stigma. Many people view drug use as “immoral” and often tie it to criminal activity. People in recovery are often judged more harshly for relapsing than with other chronic diseases.
There are different types of stigmas. Three common ones faced by those with opioid addiction include:
- Social stigma: this refers to stigma that comes from friends and family, the community, and the media.
- Structural stigma: when stigma becomes very common, it can often affect policies, resources and services. For example, not connecting people with, or putting up obstacles that make it harder for them to access, the health and social services they need.
- Self-stigma: this is when people internalize all the negative messaging about those who use drugs and apply it to themselves.
The impact of stigma
Stigma is dangerous because it creates barriers to getting help. In fact, stigma is one of the main reasons why people avoid getting treatment.4 People often fear being labelled as “drug addicts” and worry about being seen as immoral or weak by their friends and relatives. It also increases the risk of anxiety and depression that frequently affect people struggling with opioid addiction.4 Stigma can also make it harder for people with opioid addiction to find housing and jobs, which then affects their overall health and quality of life.
Stigma can also affect the quality of care people getting addiction treatment receive. For example, some health care providers may not want to treat those stereotyped as “difficult” or dangerous. Unfortunately, this type of stigma among health care providers makes it much harder for patients to get help when they need it most. On top of that, people may be less likely to start addiction treatment or report a relapse because they worry about being judged by their health care providers. At Shoppers Drug Mart, our pharmacy teams are committed to providing treatment in a respectful, supportive environment with the utmost confidentiality.
How you can help fight stigma
You can play a critical role in helping the fight against stigma and ensuring people with opioid addiction get the help they need. Here are some of the things you can do:
- Educate yourself and others: Learn about opioid addiction and understand that addiction is a medical condition deserving of care and treatment just like other health conditions. If you see people with addiction being treated disrespectfully, speak up.
- Be empathetic: Do not judge someone who uses drugs, as you do not know the whole story. Many opioid users start using drugs because of chronic pain or severe injury. Be respectful and show compassion and care.
- Don’t make assumptions: Be open minded and don’t let opinions or assumptions colour the way you think of someone. See and get to know the person first.
- Words matter: Be mindful of the way you talk to and about people with addiction. Choose words carefully, avoiding stigmatising words like “junkie” and “addict”. Instead, use "people-first” language that focuses on the individual and not the action, such as “people who use drugs” or “people with a substance use disorder”.
Opioid addiction is a chronic condition and many people with it experience a long road to recovery. Addressing stigma is an important part in removing barriers for people to get the care and help they need.
- Responding to Canada’s opioid crisis (2020). Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-prescription-drug-use/opioids/responding-canada-opioid-crisis.html Accessed April 26, 2020.
- Stigma as a fundamental hindrance to the United States opioid overdose crisis response, Tsai A. et. al. PLoS Med. 2019 Nov; 16(11): e1002969. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6957118/#sec005title
- Stigma around substance use (2020). Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-prescription-drug-use/opioids/stigma.html Accessed April 26, 2020.
- Stigma of addiction (2020). Drug Rehab. https://www.drugrehab.com/addiction/stigma/ Accessed April 26, 2020.
- Changing how we talk about substance use. Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/hc-sc/documents/services/publications/healthy-living/problematic-substance-use/substance-use-eng.pdf. Accessed May 25, 2020.