Reducing the Harmful Stigma of Addiction: Substance use is a health issue



This week is National Addictions Awareness Week (Nov. 19-25), a time to reflect on substance use, a complex and far-reaching health issue.

Although in recent years attitudes surrounding substance use have changed for the better, it is still often associated in a negative way. This is especially noticeable in news stories showing people who use substances, often homeless, experiencing distress or harm.

Substance use is a complex and multi-layered health issue made more prevalent for First Nations people given the associated trauma from intergenerational and current day impacts of colonialism. Systemic racism and discrimination have further compounded the impacts of substance use on First Nations in British Columbia. This, combined with the impacts of stigma, contributes towards the disproportionate impact that the current toxic drug emergency is having on First Nations people.   

Negative associations of people who use substances are stigmatizing, and that stigma impacts not only people who use substances but also their families, friends and communities. To address stigma, society must come to view substance use as a treatable disease from which patients can recover from and continue to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Every individual's journey is unique and their path to wellness can take many different forms and look completely different from others. Challenging stigma and walking beside people who use substances by offering culture, tradition and connection provides a relationship that is compassionate and caring. This is a key step towards lessening the harms of the toxic drug emergency.

Using negative language about people who use substances can lead to a cycle of behaviours and attitudes that further isolate and marginalize people. Some of the harmful effects of stigma can include:

  • Fear: People who use substances can be reluctant to seek help or treatment for fear of being judged harshly
  • Lack of Empathy: Hiding substance use can be due to the perception that there will be a lack of understanding from and connection with family, friends, co-workers or others
  • Insecurity: Trouble finding housing or fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities
  • Hostility: Bullying, physical violence or harassment
  • Hopelessness: The belief that you'll never succeed at certain challenges or that you can't improve your situation

To eliminate stigma we must show compassion towards people who are experiencing substance use, walk beside them, and acknowledge that every life is valuable and every individual is deserving of love. We can support people who use substances by talking with them about substance use and using our voices to educate others.

It is important to recognize that due to the toxic drug supply in British Columbia, people who use substances recreationally are at the same risk of a toxic drug-poisoning event as those who use substances chronically.

​At the FNHA, we recognize there is no easy answer to this issue. There is a lot of work to be done to reduce the harms and support people on their healing journeys. FNHA's Indigenous harm reduction approach will continue to inform our response to the toxic drug public health emergency to support First Nations in BC. We encourage everyone to learn more about harm reduction and how to cultivate surroundings that are free from stigma and discrimination.

For this year's National Addictions Awareness Week, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) held a conference on the unceded and traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, at the Vancouver Convention Centre from Nov. 20 to 22.

The theme was Inspiration, Innovation and Inclusion. For more information, visit the CCSA website here:

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