Stigma: What does it look like? How does it affect health care? What can we do to change that?



National Addictions Awareness Week Series

A message from Andrea Medley, FNHA Indigenous Wellness Educator

For National Addictions Awareness Week this year, the main goal is to “help reduce the stigmas and stereotypes associated with addiction and recovery.”1 It is timely to reflect on the impacts of stigma on our lives as Indigenous people and communities, no matter what stage we are at in our healing journeys. Whether we abstain from substance use, use substances ourselves, or are in a supportive role to friends or family who use substances, it’s important for us to consider how stigma impacts us and them – and what we can do about it.

What is stigma?

Stigma is defined as a “mark of disgrace,” and for many people who use substances or experience an addiction, stigma is still felt as that “mark.” The feeling of being “othered,” that is, isolated and stereotyped, very much accompanies the experience of someone living with substance use. Stigma affects how we treat people because it affects how we see and how we think about them.

How does it affect health care?

This in turn affects health care because when people feel stigmatized, they may feel isolated, unworthy of services, and unwelcome – and therefore unsafe and uncomfortable about going to health centres or hospitals to access services. This, of course, impacts our ability to provide relationship, care and support.

How can people who use substances access what they need, and how can we involve people who use substances in culture and tradition if they don’t come because they don’t feel welcome? How can we prevent overdoses if people can’t open up to us about their substance use? How do we address myths in our community about substance use, addiction, and harm reduction? These concerns are escalated in the current overdose crisis we are grappling with in BC – a crisis we have been struggling with and supporting each other through for years now.

How can we combat stigma?

To combat stigma we need to consider each individual as a whole person and not just focus on the behaviour that we don’t like or agree with. We know that the people in our lives who struggle with addiction do so because of many complex reasons including trauma, grief, loss and pain. We know that each of us has many things in life that bring us joy, purpose, and love. We need to focus on these aspects of our lives. People who use substances are valuable members of our communities: they are our friends, family members, and community members, and we need to find ways we can support each other to reduce stigma and the tragic effects of addiction.

Following are some of the things we can do to avoid stigmatizing people:

• Change our language: use “people-first” language, such as “people who use substances” or “people experiencing an addiction” rather than de-personalizing people by labelling them as “addicts,” “users,” etc.

• Share accurate information: be mindful of the information we share and make sure it comes from a reliable source.

• Start the conversation: check out our “Talking About Substance Use” one-pager

For more information on stigma, and to help carry forward this conversation, please check out the “Stigma” video from our “Taking Care of Each Other: Indigenous Harm Reduction” teaching tool video series: or check out other FNHA resources on harm reduction at

1 National Addictions Awareness Week. Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.