National Addictions Awareness Week 2021: Compassion, Culture and Connection: Good Medicines That Save Lives



A message from Richard Jock, FNHA Chief Executive Officer, and Dr. Nel Wieman, FNHA Deputy Chief Medical Officer

National Addictions Awareness Week is a time to focus on and learn more about understanding and preventing addiction to substances, as well as to discuss harm-reduction/treatment/recovery options, approaches, and solutions for helping people who are experiencing addiction.

“Driving Change Together" is the theme of this year's National Addictions Awareness Week. It reflects the fact that we each have a role to play in effecting positive change – whether we have loved ones who are experiencing addiction, have lived and/or are living with addiction, or are addiction workers, mental health workers, healthcare professionals, researchers, or policy makers.

We need to work together now more than ever. Alcohol sales have risen and the toxic-drug-poisoning crisis has worsened as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused many different problems and increased stress, anxiety, and disconnection. As First Nations people, we are amongst those most impacted. We accounted for 14.9% of all toxic-drug deaths last year, although we represent only 3.3% of BC's total population. According to our most recent data, 142 First Nations people in BC died of toxic drugs poisoning from January to June of 2021, a 25.7% increase compared to the same period in 2020.

As a health and wellness partner to First Nations people in BC, the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) works to help those who are experiencing addiction in many different ways, including through our Virtual Substance Use and Psychiatry Service, which provides culturally safe care for BC First Nations people and their family members (even if non-Indigenous) with access to specialists in addictions medicine and psychiatry. Please see the links at the end of this message to learn more, and for information about other supports and resources, including culturally safe treatment centres.

The FNHA supports a harm-reduction approach that is compassionate, practical, and non-judgmental. We know that helping Indigenous people who are experiencing addiction to alcohol and/or other drugs requires, among other things, being informed and educated about intergenerational and contemporary trauma, grief, loss, and the effects of ongoing racism, as these are all deeply rooted causes of harmful substance use, addiction, and mental illness. Those with a history of trauma are 2.9 times more likely to use pain relievers like opioids in a harmful way than those who do not have a history of trauma. Addiction is not a moral issue, but a health issue that stems from profound physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual distress. 

Knowing this, there are three practical and powerful things we can all use to help ourselves or others if we or they are experiencing addiction: 1) compassion, which is concern for others' sufferings (self-compassion if you're the one struggling with addiction); 2) culture, which helps rebuild, restore and heal wounded bodies, minds and spirits; and 3) connection, which meets the deep universal need to belong.

Compassion can save lives

Being sincerely compassionate and empathic towards people who use substances can actually help save their lives. This means practicing lateral kindness, meeting people where they're at (not where we think they should be), and being mindful of the way we think, speak and act towards them. Shaming, blaming, criminalizing, and stigmatizing people only harms. Treating people with compassion and kindness is healing, and will greatly help motivate them to feel the self-worth and hope necessary to start or continue on their recovery / health and wellness journey.

It's important to use language that acknowledges someone as a person before describing the person's health condition, e.g., say “person with a substance use disorder" or “person experiencing addiction," not “addict" or “druggie," which dehumanizes and harms. Please see this resource on destigmatizing language from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. Words matter!

Culture can save lives

It can be helpful for Indigenous people who use substances to get involved in their community's cultural activities – whether that is learning their traditional language, taking part in healing circles, gatherings, ceremonies, traditional dancing, feasts, potlatches, sweats, joining a drumming circle, learning to bead, or whatever it may be. If you know someone who is using substances, invite them to cultural activities!

Those who have been disconnected from these activities, and from their traditional lands and communities, can find Indigenous communities to belong to that practise their culture and traditions. There are many friendship centres across BC for example. Vancouver also has the Culture Saves Lives movement, which addresses the need for cultural and spiritual care, reconnecting, or helping people connect for the first time to traditional, spiritual, and cultural practices. Most of these organizations include access to Elders and traditional medicines, peer support, and links to housing, nutrition and healthcare.

The FNHA believes that community-driven and culturally based solutions are the way forward, and we are working with First Nations communities to expand Indigenous-specific, culturally safe harm-reduction, treatment, and recovery services in First Nations communities and for those living in urban areas. We know that First Nations people have the wisdom and traditional knowledge required to independently manage our own substance-use programming and services – programs and services that recognize and centre around the importance of culture, community, and being out on the land.

Connection can save lives

Connection is the opposite of addiction. Being connected to family, friends or community—and feeling loved, valued and supported— can be good medicine to address harmful substance use and addiction, according to many experts in the field. Research shows that not having deep emotional needs met (often as a result of childhood trauma, which can cause people to avoid further pain by "disconnecting" from others and self-soothing by using substances) is one of the main reasons for addiction.

We all have the opportunity to be “good medicine" in the lives of people struggling with substance use simply by truly and consistently accepting and connecting with them, no matter where they are at in their journey. Family members and friends are often the most important influencers, because we are willing to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to support our loved ones. Unconditional love can be the greatest medicine of all.

Driving Change Together

So – compassion, culture, and connection – these are just a few of the powerfully good medicines we can use for “Driving Change Together." Please check out the links following this message to learn more about how we can work together to help save lives. And please take good care of yourself and others this week and always!​

In Health and Wellness, 

Richard Jock, Chief Executive Officer

Dr. Nel Wieman, Deputy Chief Medical Officer

Resources to help you get informed and educated about addiction, so you can be part of the solution: 

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